Spring Hill attorney Jason Melton is in an uphill battle against freshman Republican incumbent Robert Schenck in House District 44, which covers Hernando and portions of Pasco and Sumter counties. Melton, a 34-year-old Democrat, entered the race in September and his name will not be on the November ballot. To choose Melton, voters must cast their ballots for Joe Puglia, who left the race to care for his wife.
Melton is the best choice. Green Party hopeful Sarah Roman, 22, a college student living outside the district, is not campaigning. Schenck was unimpressive in his first term, getting only one bill — dealing with children's images on the Internet — passed into law.
A former state prosecutor in South Florida, Melton moved to Hernando County four years ago to work on an unsuccessful congressional campaign and decided to make it his home. He is accurate in his criticism of Schenck's legislative record, calling it a squandered opportunity to help Hernando. The county's unemployment rate tops 9 percent, the highest in the Tampa Bay area.
Melton advocates placing more responsibility for public education at the district level, and he wants to close sales tax exemptions to increase funding for education. Schenck, 33, is a former teacher offering uninspiring less-government, more-freedom platitudes, including the notion that private schools accepting vouchers should not face the same accountability standards as public schools.
In House District 44, the Times recommends Jason Melton.
Rep. John Legg, R-New Port Richey, is a charter school administrator who is helping shape state education policy. He has championed end-of-year tests to supplant the FCAT as a measure of high school students' achievement; adding factors such as completion rates, SAT scores and enrollment in advanced placement courses to help determine letter grades assigned to high schools; and better accountability of funding for gifted education.
Legg, 33, is completing his second term in District 46 in western Pasco County. Earlier career stops as a legislative aide and social worker have helped shape his views as a strong supporter for consumers and senior citizens.
He is opposed by Democrat Ron Rice, 40, and independent John Ubele, 30, operations manager for the Nationalist Coalition, a St. Petersburg-based white nationalist group. Voters should repudiate Ubele's racist platform.
Rice, chief of a land survey crew for the city of Clearwater, is a Democratic Party volunteer making his first run for office. He is an affable advocate for the working class but not well versed in the issues confronting Floridians. His inexperience is most apparent when he contends incorrectly that Amendment 1, which granted larger property tax exemptions to homeowners, is the root cause of state government budget woes. The constitutional amendment cut revenue for local governments; declining sales, real estate transaction and gasoline taxes are forcing the spending cuts in Tallahassee.
In House District 46, the Times recommends John Legg.
Kevin C. Ambler
The incumbent, Kevin Ambler, 47, faces token opposition from a write-in candidate who is not actively campaigning. The Lutz Republican has generally been a moderate voice, though he has, in the past year, sought to broaden his appeal to social conservatives in the expected run-up to a state Senate race. He is the only credible choice in this northwest Hillsborough district, which includes Carrollwood, Northdale and Keystone. In House District 47, the Times recommends Kevin Ambler.
In 2006, former Tarpon Springs City Commissioner Peter Nehr narrowly defeated award-winning high school teacher Carl Zimmermann in this North Pinellas district. Two years later, it is clear that the Republican is not destined for a leadership role in the House, and his personal financial problems are an unfortunate distraction. In this rematch, Zimmermann is still the better choice.
Zimmermann, 57, first ran for this seat in 1992 as a Republican and lost. By the 2006 election he had changed parties, and this year he has active Democratic Party support. Zimmermann's familiarity with players on both sides of the aisle could be an advantage in Tallahassee.
Because he is not the incumbent, Zimmermann does not have Nehr's grasp of detail about legislative matters. But he has better ideas and is a quick study, with a congenial, open, collaborative style. Nehr, 56, is often accused of acting self-important; that won't be a problem with Zimmermann.
Zimmermann has a passion for improving the state's public schools, calling for more partnerships between public schools and private industry, better preparing students for the outside world, enhancing academic freedom in the classroom and moving away from Florida's obsession with testing. His ideas for tackling the state's property insurance challenges include buying reinsurance overseas at reduced prices and rewriting state law to lure more insurance companies with A ratings into the state. On budget issues, he wants the state to stop trying to make local governments' funding decisions and to fix the inequalities in the state tax code. Nehr did not show enough growth in his first term to deserve re-election.
In House District 48, the Times recommends Carl Zimmermann.
Janet Long impressed enough Republicans during her first term that she was asked to consider switching parties. To her credit, the Pinellas Democrat concluded that would raise questions about her integrity and rejected the overtures.
Long, 63, a consultant and former Department of Insurance employee, is willing to test new ideas. She supports the concept that the state could take over some windstorm coverage and determine the premiums to lure private insurers back to the market. She wants to review and reduce the number of special taxing districts, explore consolidating state law enforcement agencies and reduce state administrative overhead. She supports re-examining the requirements for Bright Futures scholarships, either by raising academic requirements or adding a financial-need component. All of these ideas indicate a clear-headed view of the financial challenges facing the state.
In a second term, Long also plans to renew her push to improve the quality of pre-K teachers. She says public education requirements also need to place more emphasis on math, science and foreign languages.
House District 51 is on the western side of Pinellas and includes Seminole and parts of Largo, Pinellas Park and a sliver of the unincorporated west Lealman area. The Republican on the ballot, Terry Sanchez, has dropped out. A vote for Sanchez will be a vote for Chris Peters. The 24-year-old Florida State University graduate was recently laid off from his job as a Pinellas County first responder. Peters makes an articulate case for a diversified economy and attracting renewable energy companies to Florida. He deserves credit for filling the void for Republicans, but he is not yet ready for the Legislature.
In House District 51, the Times recommends Janet Long.
As a freshman Democrat, Bill Heller made a solid contribution in his first term and demonstrated he can work across party lines. The former head of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg is well-positioned to become a more significant voice in the next two years.
Heller, 73, drew on his education experience to lend a valuable hand in crafting legislation that reduced the FCAT's influence in determining high school grades. He passed legislation that bans bars from forcing customers to purchase a minimum number of drinks, and he worked on bipartisan legislation to ensure health care coverage for autistic children. He voted to place the property tax amendment on the January ballot that delivered little relief and failed to spur home sales, but he said voters wanted the opportunity to consider the proposal in District 52, which covers portions of Largo, Clearwater, unincorporated Pinellas and St. Petersburg.
With more budget cuts looming, Heller's influential voice on higher education issues will be even more important. He recognizes the need to invest in universities — and that the state cannot afford to create every expensive program on every campus. He also will push for a study of whether the state should set and collect all hurricane windstorm premiums to make property insurance more available and affordable.
Ross Johnson, 55, a retired real estate agent, lost in the Republican primary two years ago. He opposed the property tax amendment but acknowledges he has few policy differences with Heller. He notes he would be part of the Republican House majority and embrace ideals such as smaller government. That is not a compelling reason to make a change.
In House District 52, the Times recommends Bill Heller.
George Gonzalez is a Madeira Beach real estate agent who has an independent streak and recognizes bad tax policy when he sees it. He opposed the January property tax amendment even though the Florida Association of Realtors supported it, because he understood it would not substantially lower property taxes or revive the real estate market. He opposed another tax reform amendment that the Florida Supreme Court kicked off the ballot, concluding it was too risky to count on the Legislature to replace the money for public education that would have been lost.
Gonzalez, 55, who moved to Pinellas in 2001 after a career with BellSouth and AT&T, supports a review of sales tax exemptions and increased efforts to collect sales taxes from Internet sales. He believes in working toward universal health care coverage and recognizes the importance of improving higher education. District 54 generally runs along the beach and island communities from Clearwater all the way to Fort De Soto, including Tierra Verde and Isla del Sol.
Incumbent Republican Jim Frishe, 59, served without distinction in the House between 1984 and 1990 before making a comeback two years ago. To his credit, he supports a review of sales tax exemptions and bucked his party's leadership by voting against legislation that allows employees to bring their guns to work and keep them locked in their cars. But he has a pinched view of expanding access to health insurance, and he voted to require pregnant women seeking an abortion to undergo an ultrasound and be shown images of the fetus. After hundreds of his constituents protested, he was forced to withdraw a bill that would have enabled the state to dramatically raise tolls on the Pinellas Bayway bridges leading to St. Pete Beach and Fort De Soto Park to help pay for new bridges. Frishe blames the Department of Transportation for overreaching, but he should have known better. He is no more effective in the Legislature the second time around than he was the first.
In House District 54, the Times recommends George Gonzalez.
Rouson, 53, won a special election this spring and took office in the legislative session's final days and has yet to build much of a legislative record. The St. Petersburg lawyer won the Democratic primary in August, and his name is on the general election ballot because he faces a write-in candidate. District 55 includes parts of south Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota counties.
In House District 55, the Times recommends Darryl Rouson.
Both candidates in this race are unknowns. Lewis Laricchia, a 59-year-old former union organizer, entered as the Democratic challenger to incumbent Republican Trey Traviesa. But when Traviesa announced after the qualifying deadline that he would not seek re-election, the Republican party chose a Traviesa aide, Rachel Burgin, 26, to replace him as the party's nominee.
Neither Laricchia nor Burgin shows a commanding grasp of the issues. Laricchia, at least, recognizes that the Legislature has serious problems to solve, from addressing taxes and spending to making property insurance more affordable and improving transportation. Laricchia would improve spending on public transit to counter congestion and high gas prices. He would devote more resources to Alzheimer's research. Laricchia also has been active in community affairs as a voice for openness and accountability in government.
Burgin says she wants to continue Traviesa's agenda, which was socially divisive and overemphasized business interests. What this Brandon-area district needs is a representative who will focus on bread-and-butter issues: creating jobs, diversifying the economy, expanding access to health care and quality schools and reducing the costs of insurance and energy. Despite her experience as a legislative staffer, Burgin is short on policy proposals of her own. Laricchia seems more independent minded.
In House District 56, the Times recommends Lewis Laricchia.
Yvonne Yolie Capin
The incumbent, Republican Faye Culp, is great at ribbon-cutting and other ceremonial duties but has a thin record of heavy lifting in her years in the House.
Yvonne Yolie Capin, a retired small business owner, brings a serious agenda to this race. She wants to broaden Florida's tax base and make it fairer. She understands that quality schools and economic development efforts go hand-in-hand. She also wants the Legislature to examine new ways to stabilize property insurance rates.
Capin, 59, embraces the broad Democratic platform. She wants more emphasis on mass transportation, more protections for environmental land and higher densities in cities to reduce urban sprawl. But what she brings most to the table is an ability to prioritize the big issues facing Floridians. She correctly calls Culp a weak link in Hillsborough's legislative delegation. Capin would focus on insurance, tax policy, education and diversifying the state's energy supply. "We really need to start solving the important problems of our state," she said.
Culp, 68, has earned a reputation for constituent services in this south Tampa district. She also has a long record of community service. But the Legislature needs a greater sense of urgency and lawmakers who are willing to tackle big issues.
In House District 57, the Times recommends Yvonne Yolie Capin.
During his three terms in office, Rep. Ed Homan generally has been a moderate Republican whose work as an orthopedic surgeon brings a valuable perspective to the legislative process.
Homan, 65, has supported health care and housing efforts and has been a leading voice to improve the state's universities. He has worked for years to have mental health illnesses treated like physical health issues. Homan has addressed the need to expand graduate medical education and attract more physicians to the state. He is right that Florida needs to increase tuition at its universities for the schools to serve their academic mission.
Democrat E.J. Ford wants to reduce property taxes and look at "targeted" sales taxes and services fees. But the 40-year-old anthropologist seems to be all over the policy map. He is not clear how he would pay for a range of investments.
Homan is open and accessible. He is tuned in to this suburban district, which includes Temple Terrace, Thonotosassa and Lutz, and he seems genuinely driven by a desire to serve his community.
In House District 60, the Times recommends Ed Homan.
Sen. Mike Fasano is nothing if not contradictory. The New Port Richey Republican excels at bringing home the bacon to Pasco County, and this year's haul included $10-million to pay for disputed transportation improvements tied to new school construction and $5-million as an incentive to lure new industries. Yet he chaired the statewide campaign to promote Amendment 1, which forced cuts in local government spending. Similarly, indigent health care moved higher on the conservative senator's agenda — including short-lived consideration of a Pasco tax referendum in early 2006 — after he became a $50,000-a-year part-time director of community affairs for Florida Hospital Zephyrhills.
Self-interest aside, Fasano has spent the past 14 years in Tallahassee as a representative and senator working tirelessly for his constituents, most notably on transportation and consumer issues. He has been such a thorn in the side of Aloha Utilities in southwest Pasco that an affiliate company bankrolled a negative and inaccurate campaign mail piece earlier this month. His role as head of the Senate's transportation appropriations committee helped turn the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority from concept to reality to begin long-range mass transit planning for the region.
Fasano, 50, is seeking re-election to what would be his final term representing District 11 covering portions of north Pinellas and western Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties. He is opposed by Democrat Fred Taylor of New Port Richey, who was awarded three Purple Hearts in the Vietnam War and who operates a business brokerage.
Taylor, 60, moved to Pasco County from Indiana in 2002 where he had been a Medicaid program director for the Indiana Department of Health, a national officer for the Disabled Americans Veterans and national commander of the 43,000-member Military Order of the Purple Heart. He has a strong resume, but his knowledge of Tallahassee is limited. He was critical of Fasano's role in assembling a state budget he said was too stuffed with member initiatives, but was unable to define "member initiative'' or point to one in District 11 that he would not have included.
In Senate District 11, the Times recommends Mike Fasano.