Tampa Bay legislative candidates talk Jan. 6, election security

hillsborough days tallahssee
Tension arose between Newton and Rayner amid talks of bipartisanship.

Tampa Bay legislative candidates felt the partisan tension among bipartisan talk Friday afternoon as they discussed the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, Florida’s new election crimes office and the fate of Hillsborough County’s transportation sales tax.

The candidates, who were hosted by the Tampa Bay Tiger Bay Club, included those running for House Districts 62, 65 and 69, as well as Senate District 14.

The three Democratic candidates for HD 62 — incumbent Rep. Michele Rayner, former Rep. Wengay Newton and lawyer Jesse Philippe — started the forum off, confronted with questions on the new restrictive election security law, hailed as a priority of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who signed the bill in April.

Rayner slammed the new law, which establishes a first-of-its-kind office to investigate election crimes and voter fraud.

“There is no need to have an election cop,” Rayner said, pointing to Florida’s 2020 election, which was touted as the safest and most secure election in the state’s history. “We know that the most sacred thing that we have is the right to vote.”

She called the bill “frightening.”

“When you think about making it more restrictive, that is the most un-American thing that you can do,” Rayner said, adding that she plans to refile an automatic voter registration bill if re-elected.

But Newton was quick to criticize the incumbent, saying she should’ve worked harder to amend the legislation and employ bipartisanship.

“You can’t blame the other side, you can’t play a blame game,” Newton said.

The former lawmaker went on to scrutinize the chamber sit-in held by Black Democratic House members in protest ahead of a vote on DeSantis’ controversial redistricting plan. He said if re-elected, he will not go to Tallahassee “to be controversial” or “to cause chaos.”

“We had protests outside, we had protests in the gallery, we had protests on the Capitol steps,” Newton said. “But never, never on the House Floor. That broke my heart.”

The HD 65 candidates also tackled the topic of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

What prompted the discussion? The fact that the Republican nominee for the district, Jeremy Brown, is currently in jail on federal firearms charges and for his role in the Jan. 6 attack. Brown is a self-identified member of the far-right Oath Keepers extremist group.

The question revolved around due process, which all candidates said they support, even if the accusations are severe.

“Yes, because you do your day in court,” Newton said. “That said, if you do damage against the people working on the front line, our firefighters, our police that keep us safe and protect us, I have no sympathy.”

Rayner, a former public defender, emphasized the role of due process as part of one’s constitutional rights.

“As a public defender. I didn’t get to have a choice of who I represented. What I did was I ensured that people have their constitutional rights,” Rayner said. “Because that is what our Constitution guarantees — even for someone who, what I believe, throws their vitriol in the face of our Constitution.”

Philippe, a Marine Corps veteran, echoed the sentiments.

“I understand what it means to fight for your country,” Philippe said. “If someone sits there and goes out and degrades the foundation of this country, we have to step up, we have to keep those people accountable.”

The next group of legislative candidates included HD 69 incumbent Democratic Rep. Andrew Learned, as well as HD 65 candidates Jake Hoffman and Michael Minardi, and SD 14 candidate Jay Collins, all three Republicans.

Learned’s two Republican opponents, Danny Alvarez and Megan Petty, did not attend the event. Neither did HD 65 candidates Jen McDonald, a Democrat, or Karen Gonzalez Pittman, a Republican. Incumbent Sen. Janet Cruz did not attend, having a prior event with the DLCC.

The group talked roads — specifically, where the $562 million already collected from the Hillsborough County transportation tax should go. A Tampa Judge ruled Thursday the fate of those funds will be determined by a 14-person Commission from the state Legislature.

Learned, who emphasized his main focus going to Tallahassee was to “fix the damn roads,” said it should be used for its intended purpose.

“Two-thirds of the county voted to make sure that this money went to fixing our transportation problems,” Learned said. “The tens of millions of dollars invested in eastern Hillsborough already did not come from Tallahassee. It was the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the work we did with the administration to make sure that the projects in Tampa were not forgotten about — to make sure that those projects didn’t go to California.”

The three Republican candidates said the money should go back into the pockets of Hillsborough County residents, and if that couldn’t happen, then it should be directed to its intended funding.

“It’s getting more and more difficult to get around every day,” Minardi said. “If it’s not going to be going back in the pockets, it has to go towards the infrastructure.”

Hoffman echoed the remarks, and emphasized he does not want to see the millions go to a slush fund.

“People do need that money back in their pockets, but what I don’t want to see more than anything, is that it goes to a slush fund controlled by a non-elected group,” Hoffman said.

Kelly Hayes

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 [email protected]

One comment

  • Bend

    July 17, 2022 at 3:56 pm

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