Augie Ribeiro says he's the only "true Democrat" running for Florida Senate District 19 — and he's spent at least $141,000 on mailers alone to tell voters.
His glossy ads land in mailboxes with an uncommon frequency. As of late, they've had a pointed message: Ribeiro, not his opponents — all three of whom have served in the Florida House of Representatives — is the only one with real Democratic values running in the Democratic primary.
"Ed Narain: The darling of Republicans and big business," reads one using all capital letters.
"Darryl Rouson: Too Republican for too long," says another.
The other candidates have spent considerable time painting him as the outsider in this district, which covers parts of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties and is currently represented by Sen. Arthenia Joyner, 73, the legendary Tampa Democrat who is retiring after a lifetime in public service.
They point to the 52-year-old Ribeiro's lack of political experience, his recent move to the bay area and his status as a wealthy trial attorney.
Ribeiro is the only non-black candidate in the Democratic primary running in a district that's 37 percent black. But he is Hispanic in a district that's 18 percent Hispanic and drawn to favor minority candidates.
He agreed that he's different from the others, but not in the ways they're arguing.
"The reason I'm the different candidate is because I think I'm the true Democrat who is going to stick up for real Democratic principles," Ribeiro said. "I'm not going to waver over to the right like the other candidates."
That's the message he wants to get out to the voters with his recent spat of mailers. In bold, capital letters, they frame his competitors as Republican-backed candidates with questionable voting records.
Narain, D-Tampa, who has spent two years in the Legislature, said he takes the attacks personally. The 39-year-old AT&T regional director said his campaign raises money from sources provided by the Florida Democratic Party, the same as most other candidates.
His list of donors include local community members pledging $10 at a time and corporations in the insurance and tobacco business chipping in the maximum $1,000.
"It's nothing but a smear campaign," Narain said. "It's as if he says I'm somehow on the take or taking bribes.
"For a sitting state representative, especially an African-American, it's a low, nasty, dirty thing to do. Or, should I say, imply."
Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, stands by his voting record over the past eight years in the state House as evidence of his "strong progressive record." He pointed specifically to his bill that imposed more regulations on backyard gun ranges.
Ribeiro's mailers attack Rouson for supporting school vouchers and voting against repealing Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law in 2014.
"These are desperate attacks by someone who is trailing and is anxious," said Rouson, 61.
Ribeiro's spending on mailers alone almost outpaces what his opponents have spent on their entire campaigns. And looking at total dollars spent, the numbers aren't even close.
His expenditures as of July 29, the last period available, climbed to more than $416,000. Narain has spent less than half of that, at $181,611. Rouson trails at just under $100,000.
The third Democrat in the race, former state Rep. Betty Reed of Tampa, has spent $12,000 on her campaign — which most recently includes purchases at Staples, Walgreens and Family Dollar.
So far, Reed, 75, has been spared from Ribeiro's attacks.
Ribeiro said he was intentional with his choice to send the mailers from his name and not a political action committee. He said he wanted voters to know he vetted and approved the information.
"I felt it was important I send out a mailer to the voting electorate so that they see Mr. Narain is taking money from the very businesses and big utility companies I want to take on," Ribeiro said. "And Mr. Rouson, he's taken positions that I've outlined that I think if the average Democratic voter knew, I think they'd be surprised that his votes have leaned Republican and he's often sided with Republicans."
Florida House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach, who has worked with Narain, Reed and Rouson as lawmakers, said its important for voters to look at the character of each candidate as opposed to the mailers.
"I always tell people if it's a mailer, throw it away," Pafford said. "You should be watching the process.
"At the end of the day, the only thing that really matters is how members vote on issues."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.