After drawing progressive ire, James Bush III seeks to repel strong challenge from his left

He hasn’t faced an election challenge this strong in years.

Democratic Rep. James Bush III of Opa-locka is among Florida’s most enduring politicians. First elected to the House in 1992, the now-retired teacher is serving in his third stint as a state lawmaker.

Over his three decades in Tallahassee, Bush, 67, has fostered strong ties both within his party and across the aisle. That’s proven an asset over the years in bringing back millions to his district.

But his support of so-called “red meat” legislation has placed him on the outs with progressive Democrats. This month, Bush faces his first election challenge in years in 37-year-old Ashley Gantt, an educator-turned-lawyer whose campaign for the House District 109 seat marks her first run at elected office.

Bush and Gantt are the only two people running in HD 109, a Democratic-leaning district spanning north-central Miami-Dade County, including parts of Miami, Hialeah, Miami Lakes, North Miami and Opa-locka.

Gantt launched her campaign in March. She explained she was inspired to run because she felt a lack of representation for her community in Tallahassee, particularly with regard to gun violence. In mid-2021, Gantt — who was Trayvon Martin’s English teacher in high school — lost a cousin to gun violence.

Her comparatively progressive views on education and support of women’s reproductive rights also were likely motivating factors, as evidenced by some of the outside support she’s garnered. Shortly after Gantt entered the HD 109 race, abortion rights group Ruth’s List Florida endorsed her over Bush, the only Democrat in the entire Legislature to vote in favor of Florida’s new ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy with no exception for rape or incest.

Bush was also the lone Democrat to vote “yes” on a controversial education measure critics labeled the “Don’t Say Gay” law, which restricts classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual preference in public school.

Last year, Bush similarly sided with Republicans as the only Democrat to support a measure withdrawing Florida workplaces from oversight by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Some GOP lawmakers at the time sold the legislation, which Gov. Ron DeSantis signed, as a way to circumvent vaccine mandates from a “weaponized” federal agency.

In a recent interview with the Miami Herald, Gantt said she saw Bush’s vote on the abortion ban as “directly in opposition to (her) existence and … bodily autonomy.”

The founder and managing partner of Gantt Legacy Law P.A. in Miami, Gantt boasts a solid résumé despite her relative greenness on the political battlefield.

Prior to entering private practice, Gantt spent more than a decade and a half working in community service. She spent time with Teach for America helping to close the achievement gap among young learners, taught middle school in Miami-Dade Public Schools and was an assistant public defender in Broward County. There, she earned back-to-back “Hat Trick” awards from the nonprofit Broward Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers for winning “not guilty” verdicts in at least three consecutive trials.

She’s also served on the executive board of the T.J. Reddick Bar Association, including as president last year, and is an adjunct professor at the Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad College of Law, her alma mater.

In Miami-Dade, she represented District 2 on the Citizens’ Independent Transportation Trust, which oversees the use of billions of dollars collected through a countywide half-percent surtax known as the “half penny.”

Gantt’s campaign platform prioritizes improving equity in public education, criminal justice reform, addressing South Florida’s affordable housing crisis, supporting small businesses and job creation, boosting access to eco-friendly public transportation and environmental protection, including hiking financial consequences for polluters.

Through the end of July, Gantt raised more than $98,000 for her campaign through a primarily grassroots campaign that included contributions from many noteworthy Democrats.

That list includes state Sen. Jason Pizzo, Pinecrest Village Council member Anna Hockhammer, former state Sen. Dwight Bullard, former Miami-Dade County Commissioner Katy Sorenson, House District 114 candidate Adam Benna, Ruth’s List Florida Political Director Kayla vanWieringen, political strategist Christian Ulvert, and gun control activist and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivor David Hogg.

By Aug. 1, she had about $29,000 left after heavy spending on campaign advertising, materials, canvassing and consulting. She’d also collected endorsements from Pizzo, FLIC Votes, SEIU Florida and Run for Something.

Bush, meanwhile, has amassed about $63,000 this cycle through a more corporate contribution-heavy fundraising strategy. He also spent $27,000 through the end of July, with a disproportionate amount of his expenditures covering door-to-door campaigning activities.

Bush is a savvy politician, and his community knows him well. In January, the nonprofit Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Parade and Festivities Committee selected him to serve as grand marshal of its 45th annual MLK Parade.

His selection was fitting. In addition to sitting on the MLK Parade’s advisory board alongside Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and Miami-Dade Commissioners Oliver Gilbert III and Kionne McGhee, Bush is the former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization King founded one year after the 1956 Montgomery bus boycott.

Asked to rank which issues are most pressing in HD 109, he told the Miami Times there are too many. He cited seniors facing rent increases, single mothers in need of resources and children “picking up guns and killing each other because they don’t have opportunities.”

Dozens of faith leaders are backing Bush for re-election. Joining them are the Brownsville Homeowners’ Association, former Miami Heat basketballer turned philanthropist Alonzo Mourning, and Enid Pinkney, the founding president of Historic Hampton House.

Since only Democrats are competing in HD 109, the contest is considered an “open” Primary in which all voters can cast votes regardless of their party affiliation.

The candidate with the most votes on Aug. 23 will win the seat.

Jesse Scheckner

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.


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