Local issues in Osceola County politics have been sufficiently divisive that both candidates for the open seat in House District 42 are happy to make them the centerpieces for their campaign.
Suspended Republican Osceola County Commissioner Fred Hawkins Jr. proudly points to his support for the controversial Osceola Parkway extension through Split Oak Forest as a win-win; the sometimes-troubled NeoCity high-tech manufacturing center is a long-term project worth continued support. Also, Hawkins believes the acceptance of coal ash from Puerto Rico into the county landfill is harmless, and he is offering voters a chance to consider a sales tax increase for transportation as democracy in action.
He presents them all as positive developments and evidence of his effectiveness in 12 years on the Commission.
Hawkins also touts several uncontroversial accomplishments the County Commission had a hand in: a new fire station and industrial park in Poinciana, manufacturing development, a new Valencia College campus and environmental improvements to the lakes and Kissimmee River.
Beyond that, Hawkins insists, he is someone with a conservative approach to politics and who supports business development.
“I’m somebody that cares about their income. Somebody (who) cares about less government, who has a track record that shows that. Someone who can look out for their needs, giving them choices as far as education, and making sure they have a safe community,” Hawkins said. “I have the ideas; I have the experience as a small-business man who knows what it takes for businesses to grow. My 12 years as a County Commissioner and prior (service) on many boards, knowing the needs of this community, the aspirations of this community, what’s its wishes are, and wants moving forward.”
Bring it on, insists Democrat Barbara Cady.
Cady is making her second run for HD 42, after losing to Republican Rep. Mike La Rosa in 2018. Many of the County Commission decisions Hawkins is touting, she believes, have had widespread, bipartisan opposition which is fueling growing frustration.
“People are angry,” Cady said.
She’s also advocating a variety of more progressive issues, particularly concerning protecting lakes and rivers in the region, as well as addressing concerns surrounding racial equality.
Yet Cady believes local issues such as Split Oak, coal ash, and the sales tax proposal could make a difference in the HD 42 contest, not just in Osceola County, where she lived for many years, but also Polk County, where she lives now and thinks the fundamental concerns are the same.
These basic frustrations, Cady said, come from people who feel their needs have not been addressed as the bulldozers roll.
“It’s about addressing the corporate developer control that has a stranglehold over many of the citizens of Osceola County,” Cady said. “I think one thing that’s on their minds, that the growth has been out of control. Lack of infrastructure. Quality of life. Disappointment in their elected officials with their transparency. This really has evolved from a strong Democratic-issue campaign to really more of a bipartisan campaign.”
Cady and Hawkins are competing for an open seat that represents much of Osceola County, except for a large part Kissimmee, some of northwestern Osceola and a large region of eastern Polk County. La Rosa is leaving because of term limits.
Republicans have represented the district for generations. But in recent years, it has dramatically trended toward Democrats, particularly with a rapid migration of Hispanic, mostly Puerto Rican residents. Democrats now hold a 6-point lead in voter registration.
For the upcoming campaign, Cady, of Lake Wales, raised just over $36,000 and spent $11,446 through Aug. 21. That leaves her with $24,810 heading into the General Election.
With strong backing from the business community, Hawkins raised more than $229,000 for his campaign. But he spent almost all winning a four-way Republican primary on Aug. 18.
That left the St. Cloud businessman’s campaign fund with just $5,772 as of Aug. 21, according to the latest reports from the Florida Division of Elections.
Lending some extra drama to the election is the cloud Hawkins has lingering over him, one of his own making.
Hawkins was arrested June 21 after the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigated an incident from last November at an election meeting of the Turnberry Reserve Home Owners Association in Osceola County, in Hawkins’ Commission district. It led to Gov. Ron DeSantis suspending him from office.
Hawkins denies having done anything wrong and expressed confidence he will prevail in the criminal case. Meanwhile, Hawkins vows to continue his HD 42 campaign and easily won his primary, despite his pending case.
“I’m confident that once the facts of this case come forward, we will have a positive outcome for us. My campaign is not going to be distracted or deterred by this charge,” Hawkins said. “I continue to share with voters in HD 42 my record on principled, community-based leadership. I continue to talk about the issues impacting our community, health care, education, jobs, water quality, and the economy.”
Cady’s concern is not so much with the charge, which could disqualify Hawkins from taking office if found guilty. She points to a video of the incident showing Hawkins, wearing a campaign shirt, pushing his way through a crowd at a contentious homeowners association election meeting, while raising a “special deputy badge,” declaring that he is a sheriff and sternly telling a security guard she is about to be arrested.
The video also shows Hawkins pushing past the small woman assigned to keep people from entering the backroom where votes were being cast.
“The people in Polk County don’t know enough about him. So we are going to make sure that is put out there. That’s one factor. You know, the bravado of going into a homeowners association meeting with your campaign shirt on, and pretending to be a police officer, you know, he thinks he’s above the law,” Cady said.
“It’s time that the people have a voice. I have spent the last three years serving the community in various aspects, Osceola Council on Aging, Meals on Wheels, Osceola County Children’s Council, affordable housing, I served on that. I’ve just been out in the community finding out what is going on. Why are people working so hard, and yet their quality of life seems to be diminishing? That’s what we need to address.”