Rene Plasencia, Nina Yoakum offer experience or new direction in HD 50

Rene Plasencia and Nina Yoakum
Plasencia touts influence in majority party, Yoakum advocates for direction changes.

Now — with health, economic, budgetary and possibly education crises all around — is not the time to bring a new person in to represent House District 50 and replace someone with strong experience, growing authority, and the ears of Legislature leaders, contends Republican Rep. Rene Plasencia.

“This is the point where government experience matters. If you want to talk about the difference between my opponent and myself, I’ve developed those relationships over my time in the Legislature,” Plasencia said.

Experience, authority and closed-door meetings with party leaders are not serving the people of HD 50 if the results leave people with public policies and decisions that are not helping them and they do not want, charges Democratic candidate Nina Yoakum.

“I have a lot of energy, empathy and passion for this job,” Yoakum said. “I will vote the way my constituents want me to vote. I will vote to make it a better place for teachers, for helping professions. And I will vote in a way to make a way for the environment to get healthier, not just for our kids but our grandkids. And I will vote to help everything get back on track after this horrible COVID pandemic.”

The contest for HD 50 pits one of the more moderate Republican lawmakers, Plasencia, against a Democrat with some fairly progressive values in Yoakum. Both are former public school teachers. Both are former coaches. They live in the same neighborhood.

HD 50 is split between eastern Orange County and northwestern Brevard County, with about 63% of the electorate in Orange. In Orange, it takes in the sprawling suburban community of Avalon Park [where both candidates live,] the booming Lake Nona area, and then some mostly rural communities including Bithlo, Christmas, Lake Hart, Lake Mary Jane, and Wedgefield. In Brevard  the district includes the cities of Titusville and Mims.

About 20% of the population is Hispanic, about 10% Black.

Much of the district is the most environmentally-sensitive area of Central Florida, including the St. Johns and Econlockhatchee rivers and their wetlands and swamps, and much of the 300,000-acre Deseret Ranches. There also are significant environmental challenges for the Indian River Lagoon running through Brevard County.

The economy is split between Orlando and Florida’s Space Coast. Titusville hosts much of the growing commercial space industry in industrial parks at the Space Coast Regional Airport. Manufacturing is big in Mims, And there is significant manufacturing activity developing along State Road 528 and in Lake Nona.

Overall, Republicans hold a 1-point lead in voter registration in the district, according to the most recent book closing reports from the Florida Division of Elections. The counties offer different bases though. Republicans have a 15-point advantage in Brevard’s HD 50 electorate, while Democrats hold an 8-point advantage in Orange County’s HD 50 electorate.

Republicans have represented the region for a long time, with Plasencia winning HD 50 convincingly in 2016 and getting reelected just as convincingly in 2018.

Neither had a primary opponent last month.

Plasencia entered the fall campaign with a sizable campaign money advantage, having raised $159,000. His campaign had $86,039 in the bank according to Florida Division of Elections reports through August 21. Yoakum had raised $49,000 and had $28,578 in the bank on August 21. On the other hand, Yoakum has reached far more donors. Her campaign has taken about 430 donations, and all but a half-dozen of those came from individuals. Plasencia had received only about 260 donations, and nearly 100 were maximum $1,000 checks from businesses or political action committees.

“I obviously was given a strong leadership role these last two years. Going into my last term in office is when I will have my highest leadership role. So my ability to bring resources back, to engage in these conversations at the highest level, are going to be key to making sure our local economy gets back,” Plasencia said. “I’ve been having meetings with local hoteliers because I need to be able to convey their message to our leadership when I’m in closed-door meetings. My opponent will never be in a closed-door meeting, if she gets elected, with leadership.”

Plasencia cited such leadership relationships and roles to playing key parts in getting VISIT Florida reauthorized, and in helping develop the $500 million public school teacher pay raise packages this past year.

“I pushed to include our veteran teachers from the very beginning,” Plasencia added. That resulted, he said, in $100 million being reserved for veteran teachers’ pay raises, plus the increases in per-student allocations, which can be used for experienced teachers’ pay.

Plasencia said he’s also been one of the leaders in attracting manufacturing, and noted he has won the industry’s “Manufacturing Champion Award” in the Florida House two years in a row.

The challenges for health, economic, and budgetary responses to the coronavirus crisis are still evolving but should be more apparent soon, Plasencia said.

“Once we get back into committee weeks, into session is when we have to start figuring out how much of a loss we’ve had, and what that’s going to mean for our budget,” Plasencia said.

“It’s not like we haven’t been here before. Everything is on the table when you’re talking about how we are going to continue running our state. We’re going to do our best to get through this. And until we get through it we’ll do our best to help our constituents and keep our businesses afloat, or at least moving forward until they can open back up,” Plasencia said.

Both Plasencia and Yoakum have raised concerns about how Florida is responding to the coronavirus crisis. Plasencia has been one of the most outspoken Republicans about emphasizing the needs for social distancing and masks. And he’s been unhappy with decisions to reopen schools as broadly and as soon as they have been.

Yoakum largely agrees on the schools, and extends her concerns to reopening the whole economy more gradually. She shares the pain. Her husband was recently laid off from a job [Major League Baseball scout for the Chicago White Sox] after 29 years.

“I have a lot of empathy for families going through the same thing,” she said.

“I do not want to hurt any businesses. I love to eat out. I’m a very social being. I like to help small businesses, from the bottom of my heart. But I think we need to wait until we have people healthy again, and people out of the hospitals and the death rate is down. And we don’t have them down,” Yoakum said.

Both express strong support for environmental protection, especially for the Indian River Lagoon running through Brevard County.

She parts with Plasencia on support for school choice, saying she is “not about that.”

Yoakum is adamant about wanting to see Medicaid expansion in Florida, and expanded services for mental health care, which she thinks are going to be needed even more because of the coronavirus crisis.

“I think more people will be in favor of health insurance for all, somehow, some way. I’m not sure the method… but I think we can reach a method that will work for everybody. I hear a lot of concerns from people who want to keep their health insurance and I think that’s doable,” she said.

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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