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Heather Fitzenhagen, Ray Rodrigues, Rachel Brown

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Democratic Environmental Caucus scoffs as SD 27 Republicans argue environmental records

“Most of the time the Republican Party votes in lock step.”

While Republicans in Senate District 27 argue over environmental records, the Democratic Environmental Caucus of Florida openly scoffs.

The organization, which recruited Democrat Rachel Brown into the uphill race, has graded lawmakers each session. Reps. Heather Fitzenhagen and Ray Rodrigues, the Lee County Republicans running for the seat, both earned failing grades.

“From an environmental perspective it is hard to make a case that Fitzenhagen is more moderate compared to Rodrigues,” said John Capece, Southwest Florida Chapter Chair.

“Aside from Rodriques’ two absences, Fitzenhagen has an identically bad voting record on the 32 bills scored by the Democratic Environmental Caucus from 2015 to 2020.”

Those two bills with different records?

Fitzenhagen, like the Democratic group, opposed legislation in 2019 prohibiting the awarding of attorney’s fees in certain civil suits regarding moratoria and resolutions, while Rodrigues skipped the vote. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law last year.

The caucus also supported legislation passed in 2018 and signed by Gov. Rick Scott establishing the Southeast Florida Coral Reef Ecosystem Conservation Area. Fitzenhagen voted in favor of the bill, and Rodrigues missed the vote, but since every other Representative present voted for the bill it’s likely he would have done the same. Rodrigues during that Session served as House Republican Leader.

Brown, for her part, said both lawmakers failed when it came to the most important legislation voted on this year, the Clean Waterways Act. Signed into law by DeSantis this week, Brown maintains the bill contained a poison pill preempting lawsuits on behalf of the environment.

“The bill makes it easy to dump bio-solids in waterways and prevents people from establishing rights of nature and to establish a legal right to clean air and clean water,” Brown said. “Not only is the name deceitful but it’s got a lot of fluff, and it’s just one line that effectively has the most power in the whole bill.”

Brown serves on the board for Rights of Nature, one of the plaintiff groups suing DeSantis in federal court over the law.

Some Democrats in Tallahassee have pushed for Brown to drop her race in a deep-red district in hopes that electing a moderate will be better for the sake of legislating. But Brown said the vote shows as long as enemies of nature control the Republican Party, Democrats must challenge every seat.

“Maybe Republicans didn’t know what was in the bill, but their friends told them ‘Hey sign this bill,’ and it sounded good so they didn’t question it,” Brown said.

It should be noted, of course, that the Waterways Act passed with wide bipartisan support, with no votes cast against it in the House or Senate.

And both Fitzenhagen and Rodrigues continue to tout their own environmental records in the House.

Rodrigues said he has worked to limit harmful discharges into the Caloosahatchee River and secured funding for the C-43 reservoir and a project to raise the Tamiami Trail to improve water flow to the Everglades.

Fitzenhagen, meanwhile, has said she’s the candidate in the race not owned by sugar interests and who has pushed for waterway protections and the reduction of pollutants into rivers.

Janelle Christensen, state chair for the Democratic Environmental Caucus, balked at suggestions Fitzenhagen represented a more eco-friendly alternative than Rodrigues. She served as campaign manager for Parisima Taeb, the Democrat who challenged Fitzenhagen for her House seat in 2018.

She said a close examination of Fitzenhagen’s record shows more willingness to buck party leadership, something shown with her sponsorship of legislation in 2017 regarding agriculture land leases and the construction of a new aquifer in South Florida. That bill also drew no votes against it in the House.

“My understanding is that she did that because of local advocacy from water keepers and perhaps Captains for Clean water,” Christensen said.

But both Republicans voted to stop local governments from passing straw bans. Other than the fact Rodrigues leans more on party talking points, the voting record is about the same, she said.

“Most of the time the Republican Party votes in lock step,” she said.

Of course, the district typically votes in lock step with Republicans as well. Outgoing Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto didn’t even face a Democrat the last two times she was up for reelection, and in 2012, she beat Democrat Debbie Jordan with greater than 62% of the vote.

The Democratic Caucus, though, doesn’t want to see Republicans in the district lower the bar on expectations for protecting the environment, especially with a tourism economy built around waterways and red tide and blue-green algae posing regular threats to the region.

Written By

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at jacobogles@hotmail.com.

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