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‘You’ve got to show up’: Republican House candidates noticeably absent from Tampa Tiger Bay candidate forum

Two of three Republican candidates were absent.

Health care, felon voting rights and affordable housing were all on the table for discussion Friday afternoon at a virtual Tampa Tiger Bay forum with Tampa Bay Florida House candidates.

But there was a notable silence from GOP candidates.

Traci Koster, a candidate for House District 64, was the only Republican candidate to appear in any of the three races involved. HD 60 incumbent Jackie Toledo and HD 59 Republican nominee Michael Owen were absent from the discussion. Owen, who originally accepted the invitation, later said he could not attend — his second absence from a Tiger Bay forum, which hosts local candidates for discussions on issues relevant to their campaigns.

With a lack of attendance from Republican candidates, Democrats Jessica Harrington for HD 64, Andrew Learned for HD 59 and Julie Jenkins for HD 60 dominated the discussion, and criticized their opponents for not showing.

“Absentee leadership doesn’t help,” Jenkins said at the meeting. “These are hard questions, we all— Traci, Jessica and Andrew — we’re all here because we’re leaders, we’re not absentee leaders. You’ve got to show up.”

At the forum, candidates discussed expanding Medicad, which would extend coverage to about 800,000 more Floridians.

“It makes health care more affordable for more people in our state. It helps cover the gap between our poor, who are on Medicaid, and our working poor, which is far too many people in our community,” Learned said in support of Medicade expansion. “I can’t think of a time when making sure we expand access to affordable health care is more important than in the middle of a pandemic, which is why I absolutely support it.”

Koster dissented from the Democrats in the discussion on health care, citing the cost to Floridians.

Florida’s covering our children, our seniors, our most vulnerable population, and to expand Medicaid would include able-bodied working adults,” Koster said. “If we open up health care to everybody, we’ll have a quality problem, we’re going to have a shortage of doctors to handle the volume and that’s going to lower the quality of our healthcare.”

The group also discussed stances on felon voting rights, following a recent ruling from a federal appellate court that the state could require felons to pay fines, restitution and legal fees before they can regain their right to vote.

“After someone has served their time, we’re not saying they shouldn’t have to pay back their fines and fees and restitution,” Harrington said. “But what we’re saying is that they should not lose their right to vote because they simply can’t afford to pay it back all at once.”

Floridians already voted on the issue — 64% of voters casted ballots in favor of restored felon voting rights after non-violent felons completed terms of their sentencing. The legal dispute arose after lawmakers looked to define what it means to complete a sentence.

“Full restitution is part of a sentence, and that restitution includes court costs and fines and justice for the victims,” Koster said. “With respect to court costs and restitution, those are taxpayer dollars that are spent investigating crimes that are committed. And so the taxpayers are the victims there and need to be paid back before the sentence is completed.”

The need to address homelessness and more affordable housing in a time of economic uncertainty, brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, was a topic all the candidates could agree on.

“There’s a lot of good people in our area that we can listen too, we need more empathy in Tallahassee in regards to that,” Jenkins said.

Written By

Kelly Hayes studied journalism and political science at the University of Florida. Kelly was born and raised in Tampa Bay. A recent graduate, she enjoys government and legal reporting. She has experience covering the Florida Legislature as well as local government, and is a proud Alligator alum. You can reach Kelly at kelly@floridapolitics.com.

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