Civil rights activist and former state Rep. Joe Saunders’ bid for House District 106 now has the backing of five current and former members of Congress.
Saunders’ campaign announced the endorsements of current U.S. Reps. Maxwell Frost of Orlando and Jared Moskowitz of Parkland. Former U.S. Reps. Joe Garcia, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala, the latter a former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, also threw their support behind Saunders, a fellow Democrat.
Moskowitz, who served in the Florida House alongside Saunders from 2012 to 2014, called his former legislative colleague “the leader South Florida needs.”
“I have worked closely with Joe Saunders and have witnessed firsthand his determination and effectiveness in delivering results for everyday people. As members of the Florida House, we worked together to improve Florida’s economy, expand healthcare, to combat hate-motivated violence and to defend and protect the state of Israel,” he said. “I’m proud to lend him my support.”
Frost described Saunders as “one of our state’s best-known leaders fighting for civil rights (who) has a record of service few can match.”
“After the shooting at Pulse Night Club in Orlando, Joe emerged as one of our state’s loudest voices on the national stage calling for commonsense gun safety laws,” said Frost, who with Moskowitz is a Vice Chair of the congressional Gun Violence Prevention Task Force. “I trust his leadership and know he’s the candidate we need to break the Republican supermajority in the Florida House.”
Born in South Florida, Saunders made history in 2012 as one of the first openly gay state lawmakers in the state to take office. For the last decade, he’s worked as political director of LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Florida.
During his single two-year term in the House, when he served as Democratic Deputy Whip, he successfully sponsored three bills but helped as a co-sponsor to pass many others concerning issues of education, health care, homelessness and lowering the barrier for medical marijuana use.
Garcia, Shalala and Mucarsel-Powell shared similarly laudatory sentiments.
“I have full confidence that he will continue to fight passionately for our home, for the residents of northeast Miami-Dade (County), and against any attempts to roll back our freedoms in the Florida Legislature. His record speaks for itself and voters have a clear choice in 2024,” Garcia said.
Added Shalala, “Joe Saunders is a proven leader with valuable legislative experience and a keen understanding of the diverse needs within our Miami-Dade community. Joe is a community advocate whose passion is needed in Tallahassee.”
Mucarsel-Powell, now a senior adviser to gun control advocacy group Giffords¸ said Saunders “has a demonstrated record of standing up for working families and our state’s most vulnerable.”
“His commitment to affordable health care, quality education and gun safety makes him the clear choice for our community,” she said.
Saunders said he is “honored and humbled” to gain endorsements from the quintet of current and former lawmakers “who have dedicated their lives to public service.”
“Floridians in our district deserve serious leadership that understands the responsibility of the office,” he said in a statement.
“We need leaders that are focused on the existential challenges facing South Florida like the affordability crisis, a property insurance crisis, climate change and health care access. I am ready on Day 1 to fight alongside them to deliver meaningful change that benefits every member of our community.”
The most recent endorsements join prior nods from Senate Democratic Leader-designate Jason Pizzo and House Democratic Leader Fentrice Driskell, who praised his “unwavering commitment to public service.”
Saunders is running to unseat incumbent Rep. Fabián Basabe, a freshman Republican lawmaker who last Session supported measures restricting LGBTQ-inclusive instruction in public schools and cracking down on exposing minors to “lewd” live shows, including drag performances, as motivating factors.
Saunders also criticized Basabe, who ran last year as a moderate and “anti-politician,” for voting to repeal a post-Parkland ban on under-21 long rifle purchases and allow the concealed carry of a firearm without a permit.
Basabe also abstained from voting for or against a new law banning most abortions after six weeks of gestation. The new restrictions, which amount in most cases to a full prohibition on abortion, pend the outcome of a legal challenge of the state’s previously passed 15-week ban.
Last month, two former staffers sued Basabe for battery and defamation following what they described as a pattern of sexual harassment and unwanted touching. The suit followed the conclusion of an investigation into whether Basabe had slapped one of the two men in January that prompted calls for Basabe’s resignation.
His attorney called the lawsuit “frivolous and meritless.”
Basabe’s favorability among his constituents sat at less than 4% in May, according to a Public Communicators Group poll.
Basabe maintains he’s been unduly maligned, pointing to millions he secured in local budget appropriations and a successful behind-the-scenes effort to stop legislation that would have stripped local protections of historic buildings in storm-prone areas as evidence he’s done good work while in office.
So far, only Basabe and Saunders are running for the seat representing HD 106, which covers a coastal strip of Miami-Dade including all or part of the municipalities of Aventura, Bay Harbor Islands, Miami Beach, North Bay Village, North Miami Beach and Sunny Isles. Between May and July 31, the most recent date for which campaign finance activity is available, Saunders amassed about $102,000 toward ousting the incumbent.
Basabe, meanwhile, raised roughly $21,000 since winning the HD 106 seat by just 240 votes in November.
The 2024 Primary Election is on Aug. 20, followed by the General Election Nov. 5.