ST. PETERSBURG — The two Democrats who will face each other in the Florida House District 68 primary, Ben Diamond and Eric Lynn, squared off on Wednesday.
But it was their Republican rival in the general election, Joseph "JB" Bensmihen, who committed the first gaffe of the race.
Bensmihen, 47, lost a bid for Congress last year in Palm Beach County. In April, he moved to St. Petersburg and entered the state House race. So at Wednesday's Suncoast Tiger Bay Club candidate forum, moderator Peter Schorsch asked Bensmihen to defend claims he was a "carpetbagger" and asked him to prove his St. Petersburg bona fides.
Schorsch, a political blogger and executive editor of saintpetersblog.com, asked Bensmihen to name the mayor before current Mayor Rick Kriseman. Bensmihen said Rick Baker.
The audience groaned. The correct answer: Bill Foster.
Schorsch then asked Bensmihen to name three members of the Pinellas County Commission. He couldn't.
Finally, Schorsch asked Bensmihen to name his favorite restaurant on Fourth Street.
"That's an easy one," Bensmihen said. "My favorite restaurant on Fourth Street, I would have to say, is Chick-fil-A. It really is."
The next gaffe came from Lynn, 38, a former Department of Defense official and Obama campaign staffer. When the father of an autistic child praised the state's McKay scholarship for children with disabilities, Lynn responded:
"Buddy MacKay did a lot of great work," Lynn said, referring to the former lieutenant governor.
But the scholarship is actually called the John M. McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program — named after the Republican president of the Florida Senate in 2001 and 2002.
Lynn's opponent, Diamond, 37, is a St. Petersburg attorney who has lined up several high-profile endorsements from Democrats such as Kriseman and former governor and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham.
The candidates are vying to replace outgoing state Rep. Dwight Dudley, a Democrat. Lynn was running for the 13th Congressional District in Pinellas County but dropped out when Crist, a Republican-turned-Democrat, announced he was running.
Diamond jabbed at Lynn for the congressional war chest he's using to bankroll his state House bid. Lynn had $600,000 on hand when he dropped his congressional bid. In May, he announced he was running for the state House.
Lynn defended himself, saying that by dropping out of the race with Crist, the two avoided a dirty primary full of negative ads. He said using the money for his state House bid is "fully within the letter of the law."
Records show Diamond has raised about $108,000.
"I do not have a Washington war chest in this campaign," Diamond said, "and just because something may be legal, doesn't mean it's right."
On the issues, the two Democrats and single Republican checked off many of the same boxes, saying they supported expanded background checks for gun purchases, Medicaid expansion and more education funding. All three said they support a medical marijuana ballot initiative.
Breaking with the majority of his party, Bensmihen said the Florida Legislature should at least "explore" expanding Medicaid:
"In terms of Tallahassee, we have to figure out a way — I know it's a dirty word but I'm going to say it — we need to figure out a way to explore how we expand Medicaid."
Lynn sought to frame education as the central issue of his campaign, saying he'd not only fight for a bump in per-pupil spending, but also for increases in teacher pay and to put more specialists in schools.
Diamond added that he'd like to expand access to early childhood education. Bensmihen said he wants to expand school choice options.
The candidates were given a minute to address one of the most important issues facing the Tampa Bay region: transportation.
Diamond said he'd support "real public transportation solutions" such as bus rapid transit, before he was cut off by Schorsch, the moderator.
Lynn said he was "ashamed" that Green Light Pinellas, the transit referendum, failed in 2014. He said elected officials need to do a better job of winning over voters skeptical of increasing taxes to fund transportation projects.
The debate ended with a "lightning round" in which each candidate had 10 seconds to respond.
The candidates were asked who they thought was the best governor in modern Florida history. Both Democrats said Graham, who served from 1979 to 1987. The Republican, Bensmihen, came close to naming Gov. Rick Scott but didn't quite get there:
"I guess I'm not allowed to like our current governor, is that the deal?"
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Former Gov. Charlie Crist endorsed Ben Diamond for Florida House District 68 in May, but now says he is neutral on the race.
Contact Jack Suntrup at [email protected] or (727) 893-8092. Follow @jacksuntrup.