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For a better Florida House

Florida faces difficult challenges, and too many Tampa Bay incumbents blindly follow House Republican leaders and embrace bad policy. • Even when House leaders correctly identify areas that need work, their approach is too extreme. The state's growth management law needs an overhaul, but they removed the law's most meaningful provisions. Republicans were right to move toward changing the way teachers are evaluated, creating a system of merit pay and abolishing tenure for new teachers. But they overreached in the specifics, refused to negotiate — and the bill was vetoed. • On other issues, House Republicans were flat wrong. The GOP-controlled House voted to open the door to oil drilling in state waters (failed to pass the Senate), increase restrictions on abortion (vetoed by the governor) and create slush funds for legislative leaders (vetoed by the governor). It is time to move back toward the middle.

Diane Rowden District 44

Voters in House District 44, covering most of Hernando and a portion of Pasco counties, can significantly upgrade their representation in Tallahassee by electing Diane Rowden.

Rowden, 61, a former Hernando School Board member and county commissioner, took a hands-on (some would call it grandstanding) approach to governing, whether it was wading in puddles to get drainage improvements for a neighborhood or pushing for better growth management in a county where the home-building industry is king. The Democrat was a hard-working independent thinker with strong problem-solving skills.

Incumbent Rep. Robert Schenck of Spring Hill is a onetime teacher and former county commissioner who doesn't stray from the Republican playbook. Schenck, 35, touts cutting spending as a top accomplishment even though that was forced on lawmakers by declining revenues. To his credit, he introduced bills to ride herd over tax rates charged by the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District and the tiny city of Weeki Wachee. He also sponsored legislation changing the rules on double-dipping by retired public employees. On the whole, however, he is an uninspiring two-term legislator with few innovative ideas.

Particularly troubling is Schenck's plan to explore forcing school board members to serve without pay. That is retribution for their criticism of the Legislature. Being vindictive and mean-spirited are not desirable qualities for a state lawmaker.

In House District 44, the Times recommends Diane Rowden.

Michael Steinberg District 47

Michael Steinberg would bring the thoughtful citizen legislator back to Tallahassee. The Tampa lawyer has a solid grip on the issues, and his rich life experience and demonstrated commitment to public service make him the best candidate in this race for an open seat vacated by term-limited Rep. Kevin C. Ambler.

Steinberg, 51, has run his own law practice for 30 years, and his civic work has prepared him to deal with the biggest problems facing the state. The Democrat has ideas for controlling Medicaid costs, doing away with pork-barrel spending and cracking down on bullying and drugs in the schools. He is a sensible voice on jobs, the environment and growth, and expanded vocational training in high schools.

James Grant, 28, is a Tampa attorney and son of a former state senator. He has a likeable personality and could build coalitions. But the Republican has rigid views that ignore real-life dilemmas. He is insensitive to government's responsibility to protect citizens from the worst abuses by the private market. Grant also said he first thought of running only months ago, which calls his commitment into question.

Steinberg has a deeper grasp of policy and a better feel for the diversity of this district, which includes Northdale, Citrus Park and Keystone. His experience in business and local government policy circles has enabled him to think through what residents expect and what government can and should provide in these lean economic times.

In House District 47, the Times recommends Michael Steinberg.

Tom McKone District 48

Neither candidate for the House District 48 seat in North Pinellas and south Pasco will inspire voters. Democrat Tom McKone is an East Lake fire commissioner who knows the area, but his grasp of state issues is fairly shallow. Incumbent Republican Rep. Peter Nehr of Palm Harbor has an unimpressive record and his recent financial problems are a concern. The edge goes to Mc- Kone for his more progressive approach to issues.

McKone, 59, has been an elected fire commissioner since 2004. He is a board member at the Palm Harbor Area Chamber of Commerce and past president of the East Lake Library board. He runs a home-based business recruiting professionals for health care jobs, but tax records show he reported no income from that business in 2009.

McKone would sponsor a bill to protect unincorporated East Lake from annexation. He opposes oil drilling in Florida waters, supports light rail for the bay area and decries recent declines in state per-pupil spending. McKone wants education spending increased to build a better-educated work force.

Nehr, 58, also supports annexation protections for East Lake but was unable to get that legislation passed. He voted to weaken growth management laws and to force women to submit to ultrasounds before getting legal abortions. Nehr did resist pressure to support oil drilling and repeal teacher tenure, but those were rare departures from the Republican playbook.

Nehr's business, a flag shop in Tarpon Springs, has failed since his last run for office and he has filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. It is time for a fresh face in this district.

In House District 48, the Times recommends Tom McKone.

Ed Hooper District 50

Some day, Republican Rep. Ed Hooper may draw a strong opponent who will create a real contest for House District 50, which encompasses Clearwater and Safety Harbor. But that didn't happen in 2006 or 2008 or this year. Despite his dismal voting record, Hooper is once again the only viable choice.

Hooper, 63, blindly follows the House Republican leadership far too often. He voted to abolish teacher tenure, force women seeking a legal abortion to submit to an ultrasound, and gut growth management. Those votes did not serve his district well.

At times, Hooper can act independently. He opposed an NRA-backed bill to let employees keep guns in their cars at work. Even before the Deepwater Horizon disaster, he strongly opposed oil drilling in state waters. Hooper wants to develop more ways to attract new businesses, extend the sales tax to all Internet purchases and push renewable energy initiatives.

A retired Clearwater firefighter, Hooper was a Clearwater city commissioner for four years and has served on numerous government boards. He is a partner in a Clearwater consulting firm that helps clients navigate government bureaucracy.

Hooper's stability and long record of public service contrast sharply with that of his opponent. Shelly Leonard, 37, is passionate about Democratic causes and generally informed on major issues, but she has lived in District 50 for only three years. She is on hiatus from her job as a social worker, has a history of personal financial problems and has not been actively engaged in the community.

In House District 50, the Times recommends Ed Hooper.

Janet Long District 51

Rep. Janet Long cannot be bullied. The Democrat speaks her mind in the House, and she turned heads this year when she refused to be cowed by a top Republican lawmaker and won an apology. But she also works across party lines, and she should be re-elected to a third term representing this district that includes Seminole and parts of Largo.

Long, 65, is a former Seminole City Council member who has worked on issues such prekindergarten, property insurance and tax policy. She voted against gutting growth management, adding abortion restrictions and abolishing teacher tenure. She is passionate about taking the long view on such difficult subjects as tax reform and water policy. She sees the development of a rail system as a way to create jobs, and she helped organize community conversations this summer on the impact of the BP oil spill on the Tampa Bay area.

Larry Ahern, 55, is a first-time Republican candidate who sticks to the conservative talking points about tax cuts, smaller government and less regulation. The pool company owner has no interest in creating a rail system, providing incentives for renewable energy or making property insurance more affordable. Ahern believes less government spending and the free marketplace would solve the state's pressing problems.

Long knows it's not that simple, and she has the energy and the common sense to push for more creative solutions. There also is a tea party candidate from Orlando on the ballot.

In House District 51, the Times recommends Janet Long.

Bill Heller District 52

Rep. Bill Heller has been a positive force in the House since he was first elected four years ago. The Democrat is knowledgeable about state issues, and reflects the values of this district, which covers northeast St. Petersburg. He faces a strong challenger, but Heller deserves to be re-elected.

The former dean of the University South Florida St. Petersburg has a strong grasp of education issues. He voted against the Republican-backed teacher tenure bill this year, and he wants to reduce the emphasis on standardized tests, increase money for education and improve teacher quality. He supports education reform, but he wants teachers and other stakeholders to help craft the plans.

Heller, 75, voted against gutting growth management and additional restrictions on abortion that were pursued by the Republican leadership. But he is not particularly partisan and stakes out his own positions, such as supporting tuition vouchers for private schools. He says building a light rail system should be a state priority, and he wants to focus on creating jobs and strengthening ethics laws.

Jeff Brandes, 34, is a first-time Republican candidate whose family has deep roots in the community. His family owned Cox Lumber Co. for decades before selling it in 2006, and Brandes manages his family's real estate holdings. He preaches conservative ideals such as cutting taxes and red tape, but he is short on specifics.

Brandes says he could be more effective than Heller as a member of the Republican majority, but there is little to support that claim. Heller is an energetic, well-informed lawmaker who represents the district well.

In House District 52, the Times recommends Bill Heller.

Rick Kriseman District 53

Rep. Rick Kriseman must be doing something right. The St. Petersburg Democrat lobbied so forcefully for a smart renewable energy policy and against oil drilling in state waters that Republicans who control the House booted him off the energy committee. Progressive, informed voices on such issues should not be silenced, and Kriseman deserves a third term representing Kenneth City, Pinellas Park and parts of St. Petersburg.

Kriseman, 48, is a lawyer and former St. Petersburg City Council member who is poised to capitalize on his legislative experience. As he pushed for renewable energy goals, he voted against the Republican leadership's efforts to gut growth management, abolish teacher tenure and tighten abortion restrictions. He has advocated for adding community service into school curriculum, and his legislation that became law required the state Department of Education to design and provide service-learning courses.

Wary of quick fixes to complicated issues, Kriseman supports long-term solutions such as reviewing sales tax exemptions and creating a light rail system. He opposes the expansion of tuition vouchers and raiding transportation trust funds to pay for general government programs.

Tom Cuba, 60, is a Republican candidate who pushes for reduced regulation and lower taxes. The environmental consultant would not invest in light rail, renewable energy or much of anything else. He cannot come close to matching Kriseman's knowledge of the issues.

In four years in the House, Kriseman has learned quickly and built on his local government experience to be an advocate for smart, progressive positions in a Legislature that needs more voices like his.

In House District 53, the Times recommends Rick Kriseman.

Mary Russell District 54

Voters in this mid Pinellas district must choose between two flawed candidates. Republican incumbent Jim Frishe is an ineffective legislator who embraces the conservative House leadership's worst excesses. Democrat Mary Russell was a destructive presence on the Pinellas School Board whose bickering with colleagues paralyzed the board and limited her effectiveness. But Russell gets the edge here because of her progressive approach to state issues and the likelihood that she would be forced to adapt her personal style to better fit the Legislature.

Russell, 39, of Seminole, is a former teacher who served on the school board from 2002 to 2006. While not entirely to blame for the board's dysfunction during that period, she often picked needless fights and was at odds with other board members and the superintendent. She says she regrets some of the battles and that she learned from the experience.

In the House, Russell could be a moderate voice for improving public education. She supports a longer school year and school days and a merit pay system for teachers. She embraces growth management and understands the economic benefits of building new rail systems.

Frishe, 61, served a forgettable six years in the House in the 1980s and returned in 2006. To his credit, he voted against opening the door to oil drilling last year and is willing to explore more creative solutions to solving the property insurance crisis. But Frishe also voted to gut growth management, abolish teacher tenure, increase abortion restrictions and create slush funds for legislative leaders. Being a reliable vote and little else for the House leadership does not benefit voters in District 54, which runs along the beaches from Tierra Verde to Clearwater.

Russell would have to change her personal style to be effective in the House, but she has a more enlightened view on most issues than the incumbent.

In House District 54, the Times recommends Mary Russell.

Darryl Rouson District 55

Rep. Darryl Rouson effectively won re-election by winning the Democratic primary and appears on the ballot because there is a write-in candidate.

Rouson, 55, played a visible role in his first full term in the House. The St. Petersburg Democrat worked with members of both parties and helped set spending priorities on criminal justice issues. He voted against bills that would have abolished teacher tenure and opened the door to oil drilling in state waters. The lawyer plans to continue to focus on creating jobs and pushing for tax reform.

In House District 55, the Times recommends Darryl Rouson.

David Chalela District 56

Incumbent Rep. Rachel V. Burgin has been out of her depth since Republican Party leaders cleared the way for her to win this seat two years ago. Now residents of east and south Hillsborough have a stronger voice to send to Tallahassee.

David Chalela is a 38-year-old Democrat and Tampa attorney who served as a prosecutor in the Judge Advocate Corps during active duty in the U.S. Air Force. Chalela is a fiscal conservative, but he recognizes Florida must invest in better schools, clean energy and job development. He would offer tax breaks to attract new industries while managing growth in the rural areas — a key priority for a sprawling district that extends from FishHawk to Brandon and Davis Islands.

Burgin, 28, has a been a reliable vote for the worst excesses of the Republican leadership. She supported abolishing teacher tenure and measures to weaken growth-management and open-government laws. She has no real presence at home or in Tallahassee, and she seems content sitting on the sidelines or waging battles on second-tier issues.

Chalela is independent-minded, and his proposals appeal across party lines. He sees clean energy development as a way to rebuild the area's manufacturing base. He recognizes that Floridians want the Legislature to focus on jobs, not social issues. And his background gives him a much richer perspective on the everyday needs of average people. There also is a write-in candidate in the race.

In House District 56, the Times recommends David Chalela.

Stacy Frank District 57

Voters in south Tampa and northwest Hillsborough County have a clear choice between Stacy Frank and Dana Young in this race for an open seat being vacated by Rep. Faye Culp, who is term-limited. Frank is a Democrat whose focus on jobs, education and the environment appeals across party lines in this coastal district. Young is an out-of- touch Republican who is aiming simplistic slogans at the party's conservative base.

Frank, a 56-year-old attorney and small business owner, has a grasp of policy and a feel for the district that Young cannot match. She has sensible ideas for making property insurance more affordable, raising the academic performance of the schools and using tax incentives to boost job creation in the emerging clean-energy industry. Frank opposed near-shore oil drilling even before the BP disaster. As an expert on land use, she also has the right, nuanced approach on growth. Frank believes in good planning but also insists that regulations be applied more consistently.

Young, 45, is an attorney and stay-at-home mom who offers no compelling vision or agenda. She talks broadly about cutting waste, but she has no concrete ideas for creating jobs, improving the schools or balancing the state budget. She seems insensitive to protecting wetlands, which help control flooding in this coastal district, and she remains open to near-shore drilling, which would harm Florida's environment and economy. Young is personable and committed to the area, but her superficial grasp of policy compromises her potential to be an independent voice.

Frank would bring a level of seriousness to the Capitol. Her regard for open-government would help clean up Tallahassee and restore public faith in the political process.

In House District 57, the Times recommends Stacy Frank.

Janet Cruz District 58

Democrat Janet Cruz won this seat in a special election this year and quickly established herself in Tallahassee. Her strong people skills make her effective even as a freshman in the minority party, and she deserves a full term.

Cruz, 54, is a Tampa native and longtime political activist who won the seat after then-state Rep. Michael Scionti left to take a post with the Obama administration. Cruz has focused on building jobs in heavily Hispanic West Tampa and in helping small employers in the urban core. She understands she will not play a leading role in the Republican-controlled House, but she looks for victories where she can find them. This year, her bill to toughen penalties for those who harbor career offenders wanted by the police became law.

Joe Redner, 70, is running as an independent. The business owner has sought elected office nine times, and he clearly wants to be known as more than a strip club operator. He has a better grasp of budgeting, tax fairness, growth management and other issues than most local legislative candidates. But Redner and Cruz differ little on the issues. The big difference is personality; Redner is too quick and sharp with the retort to be effective. He would likely be shut out at the Capitol, which would do his constituents no good.

Cruz is a progressive who can make herself heard. She has a chance to parlay that standing to play a pivotal role in health care legislation in the coming year. Cruz has made her district office more visible in the community already, and she is well-suited to help the Hillsborough delegation increase its clout in Tallahassee.

In House District 58, the Times recommends Janet Cruz.

Russ Patterson District 60

This district gravitates toward political moderates who respect the rural and suburban lifestyles of Lutz and the needs of younger neighborhoods in New Tampa and Temple Terrace. Democrat Russ Patterson has the broadest agenda and appeal across party lines in this race for an open seat being vacated by Rep. Ed Homan, who is term-limited.

Patterson, 58, is a part-time teacher and retired Air Force officer. He wants to better prepare college-bound students in English and math and work with teachers to boost academic performance. Patterson has a sensible plan for collecting sales tax on Internet purchases and closing other tax loopholes, and he would invest more in clean-energy technologies as a way to create jobs. His environmental proposals suit a district long involved in farming and rich in water resources. He opposes oil drilling in near-shore state waters and would encourage the use of Florida-friendly native plants as a means to curb water consumption.

Republican Shawn Harrison, 45, is a Tampa attorney and former member of Tampa City Council. He represented north Tampa well at City Hall, knows the issues and is respected for his demeanor. Harrison's focus on small-business development is the right priority for the district. His work on transportation also gives him contacts throughout the Tampa Bay area.

But Harrison does not appear to have thought through many pressing issues facing the state. His idea to balance the state budget with across-the-board cuts is a simplistic approach and reflects a discomfort in making hard choices. Harrison wants to get back into the political sphere, but he needs a more compelling message.

In House District 60, the Times recommends Russ Patterson.

Will Weatherford District 61

Republican Rep. Will Weatherford and Democrat Elena McCullough live in the same Wesley Chapel neighborhood. The similarities end there. Weatherford wanted voters have a say in easing class size limits, which McCullough opposes. That alone would make Weatherford, a two-term incumbent and future House speaker, the preferable choice in this district, which encompasses central and east Pasco and parts of New Tampa.

Weatherford, 30, championed Amendment 8, which would replace inflexible caps on individual class sizes in favor of schoolwide averages and could save the state and local school districts as much as $1 billion a year. He also helped steer recurring dollars to cash-strapped domestic violence shelters, a move lauded by activists for preserving protections for vulnerable women and children.

Weatherford, who is expected to become House speaker in 2012, is not without faults. He continued to push tax cuts for businesses while simultaneously confronting budget reductions. He joined other Republican House leaders in voting to abolish teacher tenure, gut growth management and increase abortion restrictions. His constituents would be better served with more pragmatism.

McCullough, 49, of Wesley Chapel, is a retired U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant. She criticizes lawmakers for raising driver's license and car registration fees. But she offers no alternative financing for state operations besides scrutinizing current spending, and she opposes collecting sales tax on Internet sales. It is an unworkable platform that would increase spending to meet class-size limits without offering a way to pay for it.

In House District 61, the Times recommends Will Weatherford.

Greg Steube District 67

As the son of the sheriff of Manatee County, Greg Steube has name recognition, endorsements and access to campaign money in the heart of the district. But Steube is a solid candidate in his own right, and he could be good for Hillsborough.

The district for this open seat, currently held by term-limited Rep. Ron Reagan, extends from Manatee to Sarasota counties and into the south Hillsborough communities of Ruskin, Apollo Beach and Gibsonton. These are fast-growing areas that include farms, retirement communities and sprawling suburbs. Steube has a good feel for their many diverse needs.

The 32-year-old attorney is a captain in the Army Reserves who served in Iraq. His agenda is conservative Republican — low taxes, smaller bureaucracy and reduced government regulation. But Steube also recognizes that government must provide core services. His bachelor's degree in animal science gives him a grasp of the importance agriculture still plays, both in Florida and in the district. He opposes drilling near-shore for oil and understands the need to better protect the state's water resources.

Democrat Z.J. Hafeez is a 27-year-old attorney. He is bright and engaging, and his agenda is a mix of traditional Democratic and Republican ideas: targeted tax breaks, merit pay for teachers and smarter suburban growth. But Hafeez is not as well prepared or as well rounded as Steube. Independent candidate John M. Studebaker, 38, is running as an outsider. His contribution amounts to aiming more anger at the political process.

Steube is thoughtful, and he speaks convincingly of bringing the Tampa Bay area legislative delegation closer together.

In House District 67, the Times recommends Greg Steube.

For a better Florida House 10/14/10 [Last modified: Thursday, October 14, 2010 7:22pm]

    

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