TAMPA — One of the Democratic Party's best chances this year to counter-balance the Republican tilt in the Florida Senate might be in District 18.
It's a brand-new state Senate seat representing much of Tampa and western Hillsborough County. The product of a big legal fight under Florida's Fair Districts amendment, it's 37 percent Democrat, 35 percent Republican.
It has fewer black residents than the state average, but more Hispanics, Spanish-speakers and college graduates. Its voters twice went for President Barack Obama, but by thinner margins than elsewhere in Florida.
But even with a slight edge in party registration, picking up a seat here won't be easy for Democrats, who have 14 state senators to the GOP's 26.
That's because District 18 doesn't have an incumbent senator, but it does have Republican Dana Young. She faces Democrat Bob Buesing and two no-party candidates, Joe Redner and Sheldon Upthegrove, in the Nov. 8 election.
Young, 51, jumped into the race for the new seat after six years representing South Tampa in the state House, the last two as House Majority Leader.
She's raised nearly $835,000 in cash and in-kind contributions. A political action committee, the Friends of Dana Young, has another $838,000 at its disposal. And voters are getting pro-Young mailers from third parties like the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Young sees the Senate as a logical next step.
"It's a great opportunity for me to continue what I've started," she says. In the House, she says, she has worked well with local officials, sponsoring and passing bills that streamlined security procedures for businesses at Florida ports and ensuring that the city of Tampa controls the use of its treated waste water, a potential future source of drinking water and a priority for City Hall.
"I have a proven track record of being an effective advocate for our community," says Young, an attorney who grew up in a family steeped in Florida politics. Her grandfather was former Senate president Randolph Hodges. Her father, Don Duden, served as assistant secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Her uncle, Gene Hodges, served eight terms in the Florida House.
"I know what I'm doing," she says. "I take this job very seriously, and I work hard. ... I understand the diversity of the population, the diverse interests I'm representing, and I try to govern in a way that reflects the interests of everyone."
'The wrong direction'
No, Buesing contends, she doesn't.
"I'm not saying Dana's not an able legislator," he says. "I'm saying she's an able legislator going in the wrong direction. She's not working on the priorities of this community, which are the basics: health care, education, economic development, protecting the environment."
Buesing, 63, is a lawyer who worked for 39 years at Trenam Law, including running the firm. He's a first-time candidate but has long advocated across the state for issues like youth development and expanding programs to educate children in the critical years before they get to kindergarten.
They are causes grounded in personal experience. After raising two children, Buesing and his wife spent another 10 years taking in six more young people aged 14 to 21 who were homeless or at risk, giving them a home and help in school, in a couple of cases for six or seven years.
"These kids have changed my view of the world," says Buesing, who says he would donate his legislative salary to kids programs at the Tampa Metro YMCA, where he's on the board of directors. "These kids have shown me that people can be successful with health care, education, a little bit of nurturing."
Along with advocating for expanded early education — something he says even Alabama and Georgia support more than Florida — Buesing singles out a handful of issues where he says Young is more extreme than the voters of the district she's running in:
• Medicaid expansion. Buesing calls Tallahassee's decision to turn down federal money to expand Medicaid the state's worst self-inflicted injury in years, one that left 800,000 Floridians without health care coverage. He notes that the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Medical Association and the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce had supported the expansion, and said Young should have, too.
Young says Medicaid should protect children, pregnant women, the disabled and the frail elderly, but the federal expansion largely would have benefitted able-bodied adults without children who could work and get insurance through Obamacare.
And as federal support for the Medicaid program tapers and costs rise, she said, the additional burden could have thrown Florida's budget into crisis.
• Fracking. Buesing, who got the endorsement of the Florida Conservation Voters, criticizes Young's support for a bill that did not pass but that would have prevented city and county governments from passing local bans on the oil and gas drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Young says the bill, which was opposed by environmental groups, would have banned fracking while state regulators did a yearlong study to determine what impact the chemicals used in the process would have on Florida's drinking water before rules governing the practice were written. The pre-emption of local government action, she says, was a protection against counties that would want oil industry money by allowing fracking in areas of Florida, like Santa Rosa County, where oil drilling already takes place.
"I do not support fracking in Florida," she says. "I will never support fracking in Florida."
• Guns. Young supported bills to allow Floridians with concealed weapons permits to carry guns openly and to carry guns openly on college campuses.
"The majority of people in this district think that's not well thought-out and not a good idea," Buesing says.
Young says Floridians would be surprised at how few people would carry guns openly if it were legal. On campus, the practice would be restricted to students who already carry concealed weapons everywhere else they go.
"For both of these, it goes down to a personal decision," she says. "Do you feel safer in a country where law-abiding citizens are armed against criminals and terrorists who would want to do them harm? ... Because criminals and terrorists will always get guns."
Buesing said he was recruited to run and has been coached by some of Tampa's best-known Democrats: former Rep. Sam Bell, former Florida Education Commissioner Betty Castor, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, former Congressman Jim Davis and ex-Florida chief financial officer Alex Sink.
But he hasn't raised anything like Young's money: about $245,000 in contributions, $94,000 of his own money, plus aid from the Florida Democratic Party. He has a PAC, Floridians for Early Education, that's raised about $62,000.
The wild card
A poll done in July by a firm that's worked for Democrats showed a dead heat in District 18, with Buesing and Young at 36 percent each.
But the wild card in this race is Redner, 76, known in Tampa for running the Mons Venus nude dance club, his run-ins with the law over the First Amendment and his in-your-face political style.
Like Redner, Upthegrove, a 35-year-old Air Force reservist, says he's disillusioned with the two-party system and what they both describe as its codependent relationship with special interests. He wants to focus on transportation and education, especially practical education that emphasizes skills students can use in life.
But Upthegrove won't have the $400,000 Redner says he plans to put into his campaign. Nor does he have the name recognition that Redner has picked up from being arrested, by his count, 150 times, then getting his civil rights restored so he could run for office 10 times.
Redner expects to spend much of his money close to election day, but he already has bought billboard space linking his campaign to the ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana. He says his main goal is defeating Young, who he says has a "record that's second to none for exposing what the money is given to campaigns is doing to our environment."
For example, he points to the 2014 helicopter ride she and other legislative leaders got around Lake Okeechobee, courtesy of Alico, a South Florida agribusiness company that wanted the Legislature to renew a program to store excess water on its land rather than on public land, an option an audit concluded would cost a lot less. The company also donated $15,000 to Young's PAC. The Legislature renewed the program.
"This is nothing more than a candidate who is failing to gain traction in the polls, attempting to garner free press," according to a statement from Young campaign spokeswoman Sarah Bascom. (Bascom represented Alico when the Tampa Bay Times wrote about the issue in 2015, though she doesn't now.) "Rep. Young was doing her job by touring a project to see the scope and magnitude of the project before considering it. That is called due diligence."
Redner also scoffs at other Young votes, such as her support for the open-carry on campus bill.
"Have you ever been to a college bar on game day?" he says. "Are they crazy?"
Young says she's not interested in counter-punching against her opponents.
"They're running their race by attacking me," she says. "I'm running my race on my record as a proven, effective leader."
But with criticisms that echo Buesing's, Redner has stirred speculation that he could take enough votes from Buesing to elect Young in a close race. Redner wasn't included in the July poll, but a second poll in August showed another close race and suggested Redner could draw support from Buesing.
A couple of months ago, Redner mused that he might drop out. Now he says he won't. Redner says he's got as much right as anyone to run. In his mind, he's the best candidate. So he's in all the way to Nov. 8.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who is not supporting anyone in the race, said a lot in District 18 will depend on how many and which voters turn out in the presidential race. A big turnout for Hillary Clinton could boost Democratic candidates across the board.
Still, Buckhorn says Redner, whom he once defeated in a City Council race, could end up with as much as 7 to 12 percent of the vote.
"He's going to get his percentage," he says, "and it's obviously going to come from somebody."
Contact Richard Danielson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times