The Florida Legislature faces familiar challenges, from improving transportation to expanding access to health care to enhancing education at all levels. Voters have several strong candidates to consider in the Aug. 30 primary.
District 19, Democrats
After eight years in the House, Darryl Rouson is a lawmaker who knows the Tampa Bay region and how to work with Republicans as well as Democrats. In this crowded field, he is best prepared to represent all portions of this district that covers substantial portions of St. Petersburg and Tampa.
Rouson, 61, has experience representing a district crossing county lines. He has been effective in bringing state money home for public schools, summer jobs for teens and other needs. He has frustrated fellow Democrats by voting for some Republican priorities, but he also has gotten legislation passed on issues ranging from grandparents' rights to backyard gun ranges. The St. Petersburg lawyer's priorities include eliminating nondriving infractions that result in driver's license suspensions, reforming the prison system and raising the minimum wage.
Ed Narain, 39, of Tampa is completing his first term in the House and is a regional director for AT&T. Narain is a strong candidate, but he says a top priority would be to keep pushing legislation he sponsored last year that would keep secret the names of witnesses to murders. That would be a serious erosion of the state's public records laws, and it reflects a lack of understanding of the courts and of the importance of open government. Narain also supports Gov. Rick Scott's financial incentives for corporations that pledge to create jobs, which the Legislature refused to fund last year and amount to corporate welfare.
Betty Reed, 75, of Tampa, served from 2006 to 2014 in the House. She knows her community well and understands the issues, but she was not a forceful presence in Tallahassee.
Augie Ribeiro, 52, is a St. Petersburg lawyer and an attractive first-time candidate. He is passionate about social justice issues, and he has raised topics such as payday lending and utility regulation that affect low-income residents. But Ribeiro does not have the legislative experience or the deep community roots of the other candidates.
Rouson has the experience and track record to represent voters on both sides of Tampa Bay, and his ability to work with members of both political parties would be an asset in the Senate. In the Democratic primary for Florida Senate District 19, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Darryl Rouson.
District 59, Democrats
Both candidates in this race are bright and accomplished, and their understanding of the growing pains of this suburban Tampa district could better balance the alternate demands for urban and rural amenities. Rena Frazier seems better poised to build relationships and make a mark in Tallahassee.
Frazier, 37, is a real estate attorney and a Hillsborough native who lives in Brandon, the heart of a district that includes Valrico and Riverview. This fast-growing area has experienced urban problems from clogged traffic to demands on the environment. Frazier and Naze Sahebzamani, a high school social studies teacher, both support more affordable access to health care, including expanding Medicaid, and better job-development efforts. Frazier has broader community experience that would be helpful in pushing this agenda.
Frazier is pragmatic about what a freshman Democrat in a Republican-led House could accomplish. But she sees opportunities to use area colleges to expand job training and apprenticeships. Poised and thoughtful, Frazier has a solid grasp of health care and social services issues through her civic work with Brandon Regional Hospital and local development and legal aid agencies.
Sahebzamani, 46, was raised in Brandon. Her focus on helping small businesses and meeting the evolving needs of a growing minority community reflect an awareness of local issues.
These are two strong candidates, but Frazier has the edge with more varied experience. In the Democratic primary for Florida House District 59, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Rena Frazier.
District 60, Republicans
The choice for Republicans is between a first-time candidate with a record of service and a repeat candidate with another empty agenda. Rebecca Smith is founder and president of the construction firm A.D. Morgan Corp. Her business experience, civic involvement and broad political contacts make her the strongest candidate.
Smith, 56, hews largely to conventional Republican priorities, opposing Medicaid expansion and new taxes. She has a good feel for the needs of the district, which includes South Tampa, Apollo Beach and parts of Town 'N Country. Her work with the Tampa-area expressway authority, and with business and civic boards at the state and local levels, gives her an understanding of complex issues from regional transportation and job growth to social services.
Jackie Toledo ran a clueless campaign last year for Tampa City Council, and she offers nothing more substantive this time for a position of greater responsibility. Toledo, 40, a civil engineer, has no specific plans for transportation, education or other major issues. She also lacks an appreciation for the scrutiny that comes with elected office.
Smith talks in generalities, and she is unable or unwilling to take a firm position on key issues. But she is sharp, committed and willing to reach out. Her rounded civic experience shows a genuine commitment to her hometown and her profession. She could be a leader on small business issues and an advocate for opportunity in the district's more challenging corners. In the Republican primary for Florida House District 60, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Rebecca Smith.
District 61, open primary
There are no significant policy differences among the three Democrats seeking this inner-city Tampa seat. What sets Dianne Hart apart is her lifelong advocacy in the community, firsthand knowledge of its needs and tireless work in bringing voters into the political process.
Hart, 61, a small business owner who was born and raised in the district, would focus on better access to health care, improved housing and job opportunities, support for at-risk children and seniors and programs to build safer neighborhoods. Her work in building affordable housing and organizing get-the-vote-out efforts reflects her seriousness in addressing big challenges in this heavily minority district, which includes Sulphur Springs, east Tampa, Seminole Heights and Riverside Heights.
Sean Shaw, 38, an attorney, has become active in the community since moving to Hillsborough six years ago. His political contacts and energy level would make him effective in Tallahassee. A third candidate, Walter L. Smith, 43, a civil engineer who conducts vocational training programs in the area, would address the roots causes of poverty.
Hart has the same progressive agenda and for years has been the go-to person elected leaders seek out. Her focus on early childhood programs could make for better schools, healthier families and a safer community. As a legislator, Hart could make a bigger impact in the level of constituent service she already provides.
Because only Democrats qualified for this race, this election is open to all registered voters. In the open primary for Florida House District 61, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Dianne Hart.
District 68, Democrats
Democrats in this district that covers northeast St. Petersburg and eastern Pinellas Park will choose between two thoughtful, energetic St. Petersburg lawyers who have deep local roots and are well-qualified. The edge goes to Ben Diamond, who is more familiar with state government.
Diamond, 37, is a first-time candidate who has a bachelor's degree from Yale University and a law degree from the University of Florida. He served as counsel to Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink from 2007 to 2011 in Tallahassee and knows how the state capital works. He worked as a pro bono lawyer to support Amendment 1, the environmental land-buying amendment that voters approved in 2014, and would make it a top priority to see its goals fulfilled. He wants to improve early childhood education and develop a more robust renewable energy policy.
Eric Lynn, 38, is a first-time candidate who has a bachelor's degree from Northwestern University and a law degree from Georgetown University. He returned from Washington to St. Petersburg two years ago after serving six years in the Obama administration as an adviser to three secretaries of defense. Lynn was running for Congress until he switched races shortly before the qualifying deadline. His top priorities are improving public education, Medicaid expansion and improving job creation.
Diamond and Lynn agree on key issues, ranging from supporting Medicaid expansion to requiring jury recommendations to be unanimous in death penalty cases to opposing open carry of firearms. Diamond's Tallahassee experience gives him an advantage.
In the Democratic primary for Florida House District 68, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Ben Diamond.
District 70, Democrats
Wengay Newton is passionate about education and jobs programs for youths, and he is the candidate with the best grasp of the needs of this district that is centered in St. Petersburg but also includes parts of Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota counties.
Newton, 52, is a professional photographer with deep roots in the poor neighborhoods in south St. Petersburg. He served eight years on the St. Petersburg City Council, where he gained a better knowledge of budgets and economic development. He would focus on education funding, Medicaid expansion and affordable housing issues.
Dan Fiorini, 60, owns a frame and mirror store in St. Petersburg. He served two years as a legislative aide and is well-versed on most issues. His top priorities are the automatic restoration of civil rights for felons who have completed their sentences and closing the so-called gun show loophole.
Christopher John "CJ" Czaia, 56, is a lawyer who has offices in Tampa and Minnesota and once led the local Democratic Party in Manatee County. Czaia recently moved to St. Petersburg, and he talks broadly about equal treatment for minority residents, immigration issues and tax fairness.
As a City Council member, Newton often frustrated colleagues with his rambling discussions and lost plenty of 7-1 votes. He would have to adapt to the fast pace of the Legislature, but his commitment to helping young people succeed and creating jobs is unquestioned.
In the Democratic primary for Florida House District 70, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Wengay Newton.