TAMPA — Democrat Janet Cruz won an easy victory in a special election Tuesday for the District 58 state House seat. She defeated Republican Hunter Chamberlin by roughly a 2-1 ratio.
"We're going to Tallahassee!" a jubilant Cruz said 45 minutes after polls closed at 7 p.m. "I am humbled. I am honored. I am proud to be your state representative."
Cruz, 53, said she would be in the district office at 8 a.m. today. Her top priorities as a state lawmaker will include finding ways to bolster Florida's budget and prevent offshore drilling.
She replaces Mike Scionti, who resigned to take a position with the Obama administration in the Defense Department.
Write-in candidate Jose Vazquez got 19 votes in an election with less than 6 percent turnout.
Cruz said the campaign was hard fought.
"The constituents of District 58 deserve a fighter, and that's what I'm going to do," she said.
Chamberlin, 37, said he respected Cruz for running a clean race. "This is how politics ought to be," he said. "No mudslinging, no name-calling. It was just a battle of policies. And that's the way it should be."
Supporters of Cruz's opponent in the Democratic primary hammered on Cruz because she lives in a $1 million waterfront home in South Tampa, not the district that includes West Tampa, Seminole Heights and Town 'N Country.
But Cruz said she has already signed a lease on a condo at the Marina Club, which is within walking distance of the West Tampa Sandwich Shop.
Asked if she planned to live apart from her husband, she said: "That's no one's business but ours. I'm going to sleep in my condo tonight and I'll be there. That's my commitment to the residents of District 58."
Cruz also has been criticized for claiming two tax exemptions given to homeowners for their primary residence.
She has been taking an exemption on a house she used to live in on Empedrado Street.
But since marrying Stephen Rifkin in 2003, she has lived with him in a house on San Miguel Street.
The Hillsborough County property appraiser's exemptions committee denied Cruz her 2009 and 2010 exemptions, which means she now owes nearly $5,000 in property taxes on the Empedrado Street house. In recent years, she paid only about $2,000 annually on the home.
The committee hasn't decided whether she needs to repay the property taxes from 2003 to 2008.
Cruz is appealing the decision, arguing that her dependent, 29-year-old son lives in the Empedrado Street house, which makes the homestead exemption legal.
Among those at Cruz's victory party was Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West, the state House's incoming Democratic minority leader.
Saunders said he will push to get Cruz on the House Appropriations Committee.
He also said he would encourage Cruz to work with Republican representatives from the region, particularly those who are term-limited out of their positions and might be amenable to bipartisanship, specifically, Kevin Ambler, Ed Homan and Faye Culp.
"In the end, they all represent Tampa Bay," Saunders said.
He also said the party has high hopes for Stacy Frank, a Democrat seeking to replace Culp in November in the race for the District 57 seat.
"Stacy Frank is a star," he said, noting that her fundraising ability and the district's large number of registered Democrats mean the seat has strong potential to flip to Democrats.
"Of all the seats in the state she's probably in the top 10," he said.
Janet Zink can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.