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Janet Cruz retracts endorsement of Susan Valdes in House 62 race

Valdes, a former Hillsborough school board member, is accused of breaking a pledge not to take donations from the charter school industry.

TAMPA — State Rep. Janet Cruz has withdrawn her endorsement of former Hillsborough County School Board member Susan Valdes in the race to fill Cruz's House seat because of Valdes' ties to the charter school industry.

Cruz acted after a mailer was recently sent out on Valdes' behalf by the Florida Federation for Children, a Tampa organization that advocates "parental choice" and allowing public funds to be used for charter schools and private school tuition voucher programs.

Mike Alvarez, one of Valdes' opponents in the Democratic primary in House District 62, said that breaks a promise Valdes made to not accept donations from the charter school industry in this campaign.

Alvarez said Valdes is "lying to voters."

Valdes did not return calls for comment Monday.

Next week's Aug. 28 primary pits Valdes and Alvarez, a construction executive, against marijuana rights activist Christopher Carlos Cano. There is no Republican running in the Democratic-leaning district, which covers much of West Tampa and Town 'n' Country.

There is a write-in candidate, Jose Vazquez, who lists himself as campaign treasurer and has raised no funds, records show. But the Democrat who wins the primary will take the seat.

Cruz is leaving the House to run against state Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa, in Senate District 18. Cruz has made education funding and what she calls the Legislature's diversion of money from traditional public schools to "corporate charter schools" and voucher programs a major part of her own campaign against Young.

“While Susan Valdes has been a friend for 20 years, I can’t stand by her decision to accept support from the voucher industry,” Cruz said in a tweet Monday. 

“At a time when we’re learning Hillsborough schools have broken ACs, leaky roofs and lead in their pipes, I must put the needs of our students, parents and teachers first. I stand with candidates who, like me, put our public schools first over for-profit private education corps.” 

Charter school money is already an issue in the House District 62 race. Valdes received $12,000 in contributions from charter-related businesses and individuals in her 2016 school board race.

At a public forum in late June, she was asked by a Democratic Party activist whether she would accept money in this race from interests unpopular with Democrats, including the charter school industry. 

A video of her answer, in which Valdes said she would accept charter money, was posted to social media and made waves in education circles. It also led to allegations that she sought to retaliate against the questioner.

A few days later Valdes reversed course, issuing a statement saying she would not accept charter school money.

The mailer that caused the rift between Cruz and Valdes doesn’t mention charter schools, voucher programs or parental choice. Instead, it says Valdes will work to strengthen environmental protection and school safety, and “make sure that every child has a chance to get a world-class education.” 

Tom Alte, a political consultant for Alvarez, said the wording of the mailer and its label as an "electioneering communication" leads him to believe that it was coordinated with Valdes' campaign. If it was sent to all likely Democratic primary voters in the district, Alvarez estimated it would have cost about $10,000.

John Kirtley, head of Florida Federation for Children, issued a statement denying that the mailer was coordinated with the Valdes campaign. He declined to comment on the cost.