TAMPA — Three of the area's best-known black lawmakers aimed to draw distinctions between themselves during a candidate forum Saturday as they vie to fill Arthenia Joyner's state Senate District 19 seat.
The race is poised to be a heated Democratic primary that pits three prominent state representatives against each other: Rep. Ed Narain, a first-term House member from Tampa; Betty Reed, a popular former state representative from Tampa, and Rep. Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg, a lawyer who reached his term limit in the House this year.
The three candidates spoke on issues facing the black community during the St. Petersburg Candidate Forum on Saturday organized by the Childs Park Neighborhood Association and Florida Fight for 15, the state branch of an international movement that focuses on the struggle of low-wage workers.
Congressional candidate and former Gov. Charlie Crist was expected to be there, but canceled with less than 48 hours' notice, according to event organizers.
His spokesman, Franco Ripple, said Crist attended a dinner with President Barack Obama in Miami on Friday night and was unable to make it back in time for the 12:30 p.m. event.
Ripple said Crist supports Fight for 15 and believes raising the minimum wage is good for working families, businesses and the economy.
The candidates fielded a broad slew of questions, ranging from Medicaid expansion to early learning programs to the role of public records laws.
But one that hit close for the organizers and attendees — and that drew one of the most significant distinctions among the candidates — was that of raising Florida's minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Both Reed and Rouson said they would support raising minimum wage to $15 across the board for all industries.
But Narain separated himself from his fellow Democratic contenders by instead calling for an incremental increase. While he supported a $15 minimum for some jobs, such as those related to caring for children and the elderly, he said the minimum wage for the fast food industry and others should start at $12.
"At the end of the day, in the state of Florida, all working class and middle class people deserve a raise, so I do support the increase," Narain told the crowd, many sporting brightly colored Florida Fight for $15 T-shirts. "And I'm not going to lie to you and tell you that I think all fast food employees should make $15 tomorrow."
Narain and Rouson traded jabs throughout the forum, with Rouson digging at Narain's role in the corporate world (he works for AT&T as an area manager) and Narain challenging Rouson's voting record and campaign contributors.
Reed and Rouson opened campaign accounts more than a year ago as first steps toward running for the Senate district drawn to favor minority candidates. Narain announced his candidacy in March. As of April, Narain has raised $123,864, Rouson, $51,841, and Reed, $24,136.
Contact Caitlin Johnston at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.