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Legislative candidates debate education, ethics

Ethics and education were the issues of choice Saturday night as eight legislative candidates faced each other in a televised debate. There was a chorus of demands that Florida's lottery funds be used to enhance the education budget, instead of replacing education funds that are shifted elsewhere.

And most candidates called for clearer guidelines on what kinds of gifts and contributions state lawmakers can accept.

"The state of campaign financing is appalling," said Brian Rush, a Democrat running for re-election to the state House of Representatives in District 59, an area that encompasses northwest Hillsborough County.

"The average voter is becoming more and more alienated," Rush said. "Money is polluting the process."

The debate was sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the St. Petersburg Times. All eight candidates are seeking two-year terms in the House.

Rush's challenger, Republican schoolteacher Polly Demma, suggested several ways to improve education, including year-round instruction and eliminating a program that allows teachers to become advisers.

Demma urged Tampa-area lawmakers to work more effectively as a coalition.

Rush agreed that "oftentimes, we have been out of the leadership circle." But influence requires seniority, he said, hinting that the last thing the Hillsborough coalition needs is new blood.

Republican Todd Stevens, running in District 60, which includes the University of South Florida (USF), suggested the state save money by requiring university professors to increase their teaching hours.

Mary Figg, the Democratic incumbent, said she supports long-term plans for a commuter rail system in the Tampa Bay area. "There is just so much concrete you can put on the ground in Florida before you've overdone it," she said.

The two disagreed on whether employers should test for drug use.

"I wouldn't hire a man with a bad back to dig a ditch," said Stevens, who said he supports drug testing.

Figg, however, said "there is a problem with the constitutionality and the cost" of widespread testing.

In South Tampa, incumbent Democrat Ron Glickman is being challenged by Dr. Jose Mijares, a surgeon.

Mijares pledged to fight crime by searching for solutions to the city's drug problem, while Glickman reminded voters that he already has sought money for drug programs during his years in Tallahassee.

The District 66 opponents clashed on the issue of teaching creationism in the public schools.

"We need a strong separation of church and state," Glickman said. "Parents can teach their children about creationism."

But Mijares said he sees no reason why the schools cannot teach creationism and evolution.

The most heated exchange was between incumbent Elvin Martinez, a Democrat, and challenger Andy Steingold, a Republican.

Both candidates for District 65 in West Tampa are lawyers, and Steingold has made a major issue of Martinez's conviction last year for failing to file his income tax returns on time.

Martinez insisted the misdemeanor charges against him were "politically motivated," and "an outgrowth of strictly political prosecution."

But Steingold insists the scandal is enough to make Martinez unsuitable for office. "I think the public needs to take a good look at this and decide whether it wants a corrupt politician in Tallahassee, running its Legislature," he said.