Christopher "CJ" Czaia and Dan Fiorini trade barbs in LGBTA debate in Manatee County
With less than two weeks before primary voters head to the polls, two candidates for House District 70 turned an LGBTA debate into a personal slugfest.
While former St. Petersburg City Council member Wengay Newton missed the debate at the Manatee County Democratic Party, businessman Dan Fiorini and attorney wasted no time trying to win points with about 30 voters.
"My very first serious relationship died from AIDS," Fiorini said about his former partner.
Czaia countered: "I'm here to build bridges, not walls."
During the 90-minute debate, Czaia and Fiorni had similar answers on questions about affordable housing, women's rights, religious issues and a minimum wage.
The legislative district stretches across parts of Hillsborough, Manatee, Pinellas and Sarasota counties. House District 70 is now occupied by Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, who is seeking a state Senate seat. The Democratic winner will face Republican Cori Fournier in November.
The moderator then asked each man whether "people choose to be LGBTA."
"I wish somebody would give me the gay agenda," Fiorni said, laughing. "It's absolutely ridiculous."
"It's not a choice you make," Czaia said. "You are who you are."
Multiple times after the moderator asked questions, he repeatedly said Newton should have attended the debate instead of sending a surrogate. Voters had questions for the former council member, the man added.
Czaia said Newton didn't attend the debate since he won endorsements and donations from statewide groups. Newton acts like he already won the contest, Czaia said.
Tempers flared when the men talked about the Stonewall Democrats of Pinellas County endorsing Czaia over Fiorini, a founding member of the club.
Czaia said Fiorini has undertaken a "Trump-esque behavior" to his attacks and that he isn't entitled the LGBTA vote because he is gay.
"I was vetted and endorsed by the Stonewall Democrats," Czaia told the group.
"You have to look at who people align themselves with. It goes to their judgment," Fiorini said about two Czaia supporters who speak against the LGBTA community.
Meanwhile, Fiorini called Czaia a "carpetbagger" for moving to St. Petersburg in late June. Czaia countered that he has lived in all parts of the district and once served as the leader of the Manatee County Democratic Party.
During closing remarks, Czaia, standing in front of high-top table, said his father taught him about paying debts and not tarnishing his name. Czaia then called Fiorini a "nice guy and policy wonk."
"It's about integrity," Czaia said with a raised voice, referring to Fiorini filing Chapter 13 bankruptcy during the Great Recession.
Fiorini walked past Czaia to get closer to the group.
"An angry man isn't going to get anything done in Tallahassee," he said about Czaia. "Does anybody remember the George W. Bush economy? You should be ashamed of yourself."
Before and after the debate, Sheryl Wilson, chair of the Manatee County Democratic Party, said this about Newton: "The voters will speak about his absence."
Hours after the debate ended, Newton provided the Tampa Bay Times with an email chain that shows he told the party he couldnt attend the debate. The party sent an email invite on Aug. 4
"I have a conflict and won't be able to attend," Newton wrote on Aug. 11. He again told a party official at 2:26 p.m. on Wednesday that he couldn't participate and would send a surrogate.
"This debate came up at the last minute," Newton told the Times late Wednesday on the phone. "I had a prior event scheduled that I could not get out of. I am running a campign."