TAMPA — House Majority Leader Dana Young easily defeated Democrat Bob Buesing and two no-party opponents Tuesday in the free-for-all to fill a newly created state Senate seat in Tampa's District 18.
With all precincts counted, Young celebrated her 52nd birthday a day early with more than 48 percent of the vote to represent Tampa and much of western Hillsborough County.
Buesing, a 63-year-old attorney, finished with 41 percent, and nude dance club owner Joe Redner, 76, ended up with not quite 10 percent. Air Force reservist Sheldon Upthegrove, 35, got less than 1 percent.
Young said the difference in the election was her campaign's focus on "being face-to-face with voters since June."
"We visited 85,000 families," she said by telephone from her victory celebration at the Pane Rustica restaurant. "These are the things that win elections. There was never a day that went by that someone from my campaign wasn't out on the streets meeting voters."
Buesing, an early childhood education advocate and first-time candidate, said he wished Young the best after a hard-fought campaign but said he and others would watch to see whether she lives up to her campaign claims of being an advocate for clean water, the environment and education.
"I hope she takes this powerful and important responsibility of public service seriously," Buesing said.
Young said she planned to return to Tallahassee as a senator to focus on criminal justice reform and environmental issues. Her record on the environment, especially fracking, emerged as a key point of contention during the campaign.
Young said she opposed fracking and voted for a one-year moratorium on the oil extraction practice, but Buesing and Redner contended that the moratorium eventually would open the door to fracking statewide. They also contended that she had voted to keep cities and counties from passing their own fracking bans and to allow drilling companies to keep secret the chemicals they use in fracking.
The race was among the most costly in the Tampa Bay area, with more than $3 million in campaign spending. Between her own campaign and PAC, Young spent more than $2.1 million. Buesing's campaign and PAC spent another $649,000. Redner spent $336,000, mostly of his own money, in his non-party bid for the office.
The race also featured some of the bay area's most barbed ads, which voters said made an impression.
"I think it got pretty nasty on both sides," said South Tampa Republican Judy Hall, who voted for Young because "she will do the right thing."
Democrat Ron Oast said a pro-Young television commercial targeting Buesing was out of line.
"That kind of swayed my vote," said Oast, 63, a retired Bright House Networks sales manager who voted for Buesing.
But Democrat Elizabeth Carretta said Young's TV commercials about herself and her family won her vote.
"In her commercials, she's a mother, so she's family-oriented," said Carretta, 49, a cashier who voted at the David Barksdale Center for Active Adults at MacFarlane Park. "She just comes across as a normal working mom. She doesn't come across like a politician. She's believable."
An Oct. 25 poll for the Buesing campaign suggested that Redner drew voters from both Republicans and Democrats more or less equally. Interviews with several voters Tuesday backed that up.
Democrat Melanie Yoshida said she voted for Redner because his personal history appealed to her.
"He was in and out of jail (primarily for violating nudity laws) and had a drug and alcohol problem when he was younger," Yoshida, 51, a personal trainer and group exercise instructor, said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. "He turned it around without getting religious. He seems to treat his employees well and has helped Tampa become a micro-brewery hub by helping his son get started."
Yoshida said she "loved when he said he was 'gay' in opposition to some local discriminatory ordinances."
"Guess I'm a values voter, and he seems to share my values," she said. "My only concern was if voting for him was a vote for Dana Young.
In South Tampa, Republican Joel Maestas said he voted for Redner because he liked the maverick candidate's position on water conservation and his focus on Alico, a South Florida agribusiness company that gave Young a helicopter tour and provided her campaign contributions in its successful effort to get the Legislature to renew a program to store water on its private land instead of less-expensive public land.
"I kind of like some of his views," said Maestas, 27, a personal trainer. "I'm not real big on party politics, so I kind of like an independent."
Asked whether he thought that Redner hurt him in the race, Buesing said it's "hard to tell, but it certainly was a larger factor than I expected."