Primaries likely to sort out marquee battle in HD 44

Geraldine Thompson, Bruno Portigliatti
Geraldine Thompson, Bruno Portigliatti preparing.

Tuesday’s Democratic and Republican primaries in House District 44 should be little more than warm-up laps for what’s likely to be a marquee autumn race between Democratic Rep. Geraldine Thompson and Republican businessman Bruno Portigliatti.

This is a seat that Thompson took away from longtime Republican control in 2018. And it’s a seat Portigliatti almost grabbed the year before, when it was open in a special election that featured a short, wild, free-for-all between several well-financed Republicans.

Republicans want it back, passionately. The southwest Orange County district has a mix of high-end, middle class, and impoverished neighborhoods, largely Hispanic communities to the south, largely White communities in the middle, and the Orlando area’s biggest Black communities to the north. It also has the region’s dominant economic engines: the Orlando tourist corridor, including Universal Orlando, International Drive, SeaWorld Orlando, and Walt Disney World.

The Republican Party of Florida already has poured more than $36,000 into Portigliatti’s campaign.

Democrats, equally passionately, want to hold on to it. Controlling HD 44 means representing the county’s biggest business interests and representing some of the most loyal Democratic neighborhoods in the county.

The Florida Democratic Party has poured more than $25,000 into Thompson’s campaign.

But don’t forget, Thompson and Portigliatti both have primary opponents. Yet Tuesdays’ primaries should be formalities.

Thompson of Orlando is an old pro of Democratic politics in western Orange County, someone who has won multiple elections for the Florida House and Florida Senate over decades, and lost a couple of elections. She’s always running with the swaggering confidence of someone who is certain that she and her district know each other well.

Still, she drew a primary opponent this year. Hunters Creek engineer Andy Farrell is a former Republican who changed parties and then filed to challenge Thompson a few days before the deadline in June. He has done little since, except rack up warning letters and a fine from the Florida Division of Elections for failing to keep up with campaign finance paperwork.

Portigliatti is a lawyer with several businesses, including a private Christian college in Orange County. In 2017, he laid out a highly credible campaign but lost. When he got in this election a year ago, a couple of other significant Republicans, including former Rep. Bobby Olszewski, who beat him in the 2017 primary and then lost to Thompson in 2018, backed off.

One Republican, lawyer Frank Blanco, didn’t back off. Blanco is a former staffer in the Florida Legislature. He was counting on support from the Central Florida hospitality industry. It hasn’t come.

HD 44 no longer is Republican territory, as it previously was for decades. The southwestern Orange County district now has a 1-point Democratic edge in voter registration.

Portigliatti’s campaign has raised considerably more money than Thompson’s $168,000 to the tune of about $92,000, including party in-kind contributions, through the end of July. Thompson, however, has beaten several better-funded opponents in her career.

Thompson said she’s hearing voters talk with her mostly about issues that either didn’t exist or were on a much lower simmer a year ago: the COVID-19 health crisis, the economic collapse, the state’s poor unemployment compensation system, and racial justice. People are very frustrated about personal health and safety, about the economy, about the unemployment system, and about justice and equality she said.

“I have a cross-cultural competency that allows me to be as converse in Windermere as I am in Paramore,” Thompson said, referring to the exclusive suburb and the inner-city neighborhood. “I’m able to bridge divides with people.”

Portigliatti is hearing much the same, particularly about COVID-19 and the ensuing health and economic crises.

“Recovering the economy is by far the most overwhelming issue, getting people back to work, getting families back on their feet, and making sure they have what they need to get through this whole situation, not just to survive. We want them thriving,” Portigliatti said. “We have to open this economy in a very safe way. To do that, we’re going to have to help businesses. We have to knock down every barrier we possibly can.”

But first they have to dispose of their primary challengers.

Scott Powers

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at [email protected].


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