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Will Democrat's funding advantage triumph in special election for Florida House 58 seat?

TAMPA — Tuesday is election day in Tampa.

That's when voters in state House District 58 will go to the polls in a special election.

The race pits Democratic fundraiser Janet Cruz, who lives in South Tampa, against Republican Hunter Chamberlin, a lawyer who lives in Seminole Heights. The winner replaces Democrat Michael Scionti, who resigned in December to take a job with the U.S. Department of Defense.

It may be an uphill battle for Chamberlin. More than half the 64,195 registered voters in the district, which includes Seminole Heights, West Tampa and Town 'N Country, are Democrats. Only 14,100 are Republicans, and 13,984 have no party affiliation.

Cruz has far outpaced Chamberlin in fundraising, collecting more than $54,000, according to the most recent campaign finance reports. Chamberlin has $2,000.

Chamberlin, though, is undaunted, pointing to recent GOP upsets with the election of Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, and Govs. Chris Christie in New Jersey and Bob McDonnell in Virginia. Like those fellow Republicans, Chamberlin believes he can win over conservative and moderate Democrats because he rejects the far-right Republican ideology on social issues, such as same-sex adoption and marriage.

"I have many, many gay friends that have been together for years and years and years, and they are wonderful people and I think they would be great parents," he said.

And on gay marriage, he said: "My friends that have been together 35 years, if one of them is suffering from a life-threatening illness and is on the their death bed and the hospital says family members only, it doesn't sit well with me that those two people wouldn't be afforded the same rights as married people."

The core Republican belief in small government, he said, means lawmakers should stay out of people's private lives.

Even with her numerical advantage, Cruz, 53, is taking nothing for granted.

Although the district has largely been represented by Democrats for decades, it was a special election that put Republican Deborah Tamargo in office for about a year in 1997.

So Cruz has continued to reach out to voters and raise money even after winning the Democratic primary last month.

"The way I'm raising money for myself, I'm going to bring dollars to my district," Cruz said.

As a lawmaker, she said, one of her top priorities would be finding ways to shore up the state's budget.

"Last year, they took a swipe at the state employees, but how often can you do that?" she asked. "Before we do that or we raise college tuition, we need to take a look at sales tax exemptions."

Removing exemptions for such things as bottled water and tickets to sporting events could add billions to state coffers, she said.

Cruz opposes offshore oil drilling and would like to create incentives to encourage green-energy items such as solar panels and solar water heaters.

She also plans to move forward some of the legislation introduced or sponsored by Scionti.

Those include a bill that would require schools to provide disability awareness education and another that would make it a misdemeanor to lie to law enforcement officers looking for criminals.

Cruz said she would also get behind a bill Scionti co-sponsored that would prohibit credit card companies from sending people unsolicited blank checks and protect cardholders from liability if someone uses those checks without their knowledge.

She said she would be cautious about approving funding for rail projects in Florida.

"It all sounds wonderful," she said. "But we have to make sure Floridians don't end up getting fleeced."

Chamberlin, 37, generally opposes the rail projects proposed for the state, saying cost estimates to build them are too low and ridership projections are too high. Most of the people he talks to agree with him, he said.

"They see it for what it is, which is a huge spending boondoggle with an unlikely chance of success," he said. "It doesn't do the principal thing it's supposed to do, which is alleviate congestion."

Much of his platform has focused on attracting more businesses to the state, saying that automobile manufacturers have increasingly opened plants in Southeastern states, but are bypassing Florida.

To create a more educated work force, he proposes offering incentives such as tuition reimbursement to graduates of Florida universities who remain in the state for a certain time.

He supports offshore oil drilling, which he thinks would create jobs and generate revenue through leases. Newer technology, he said, would prevent the rigs from destroying beaches.

He advocates allowing out-of-state companies to insure property in Florida, arguing that increased competition would lower costs.

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

Will Democrat's funding advantage triumph in special election for Florida House 58 seat? 02/21/10 [Last modified: Sunday, February 21, 2010 11:37pm]
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