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Winning as an insider: Janet Cruz a rare success story for Florida Democrats

The Tampa state senator, ‘Janet from the block,’ is better connected than you might think. Take her daughter, for instance.
Sen. Janet Cruz, D- Tampa, reacts after she reads a greeting card attached to flowers at her desk in the Florida Senate on the opening day of legislative session. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Apr. 4

TAMPA — Janet Cruz was running out of time.

The Democrat found herself on a Florida Senate committee in mid-February debating a bill that would allow some teachers to carry guns in the classroom.

Each senator got a minute. Cruz was still objecting when the Republican committee chair interjected:

“Three seconds, senator.”

Cruz groaned. After she concluded her remarks, the bill passed along party lines.

Such is life for Democratic lawmakers in Tallahassee. Almost no matter what the minority party does, it will be overpowered by Republicans, who have run state government for more than two decades.

At 62, Cruz wants to change that. As the only member of her party to flip a state Senate seat in 2018, Cruz is — by default — one of the most successful Democrats in the state.

Gregarious and plainspoken — she swears a lot — Cruz casts herself as an underdog who connects with all types of regular people by focusing on issues like jobs and underfunded schools.

The descendent of Ybor City factory workers, Cruz grew up poor and gave birth to her first child at 16. As an adult, she navigated the corporate world with little more than savvy and a degree from Hillsborough Community College to be an optician.

“Janet from the block,” she says with a laugh.

Yet in important ways, Cruz is the classic insider. She’s been working on local campaigns since the 1980s. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn is such a close friend, he officiated the wedding of Cruz’ son, Raymond “Nick” Cruz. Janet’s daughter Ana is the partner of Jane Castor, who may be Tampa’s next mayor.

Ana Cruz, her first child, has become her own political force. A former executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, Cruz now works for Ballard Partners, a Florida lobbying powerhouse.

Although the firm is bipartisan, it’s best known for its work with prominent Republicans. In recent years, founder and president Brian Ballard played a key role in the political fortunes of Rick Scott and President Donald Trump.

Ballard’s stature in Republican politics may seem out of step with the Cruz family’s history of progressive activism. But during an interview at West Tampa Sandwich Shop in February, Janet and Ana Cruz said there there’s no conflict between the mother’s role as an elected official and the daughter’s lobbying.

“I would never call Mom and say, ‘I need you on a vote,’” Ana Cruz said. She described Ballard Partners as a firm that focuses on issues and works with both parties. Her mom says the firm’s clients, despite their ties to her daughter’s finances, don’t interfere with her elected duties.

“I have probably voted against Ballard’s clients as many times as I have voted for them,” Janet Cruz added. “That doesn’t affect me at all.”

•••

Former state Rep. Mark Pafford, who served as Democratic minority leader from 2014 to 2016, did not find much hope in Tallahassee.

“You’ve got a system that in my view is fundamentally broken,” Pafford said.

Lobbyists run the town, he said. Eight-year term limits marginalize legislators, forcing them out just as they learn how the system works. Special (and unelected) interests remain the only constants.

A lack of experience makes lawmakers more susceptible to lobbying pressure, Pafford said.

Cruz arrived to that Tallahassee in 2010 as one of just 39 Democrats in a 120-member chamber. Naturally, she struggled to pass progressive legislation. But she made herself heard in other ways. She voiced support for equal pay and LGBTQ rights. She hosted annual job fairs in her Tampa district for those victimized by the economy wrought by the Great Recession.

Cruz’ voting record and her communication skills won her admirers. In 2015, she was unanimously elected Democratic House minority leader for the 2017 and 2018 sessions.

Colleagues recall her years as leader in polite and broad terms.

“She was as good as anybody else who walked into the suite,” said Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach.

Unable to leave a lasting mark on policy, Cruz focused on relationships. She made a point of calling colleagues to inform them how she would vote on bills they sponsored. She worked with Republicans to bring state money to Tampa: In 2017, Cruz helped secure $10 million for Hillsborough Community College’s new allied health building.

And she emphasized fundraising. Cruz said before the 2016 election, she approached Tallahassee lobbyists like Ron Book and Nicholas Iarossi to ask their clients to support Democrats, too.

“I went to them with a plan and said, ‘This is our plan. These are the seats that we’re going after. This is what we intend to do. This is what it will take for each race. What can you do to help us?’” Cruz said.

That type of meeting is not unusual in Tallahassee, Cruz said. Democrats have to play the game, she said. Her political action committee, for example, received at least $40,000 in direct contributions from Ballard clients during her 2018 Senate run. Still, Cruz said she has no special relationship with that firm. Cruz said Ballard is just another lobbyist in a town full of them.

“Anyone that tries to make something out of this is making something out of nothing,” Cruz said.

Cruz has indeed gotten thousands in direct contributions from clients of other lobbyists through the years. But Ballard’s firm was also involved in one of her first official actions as House minority leader.

Upon becoming minority leader, Cruz fired several House Democratic staffers and brought on Joe McCann to lead the office. McCann was three years removed from a job as a lobbyist and senior vice president at Ballard Partners.

Florida Sen. Janet Cruz listens to her daughter speak at West Tampa Sandwich Shop in Tampa in February. [TAILYR IRVINE | Times]

Janet Cruz said her decision was not connected to daughter Ana Cruz’s position at Ballard’s firm. Overall, she said, she keeps her political job separate from her private life.

“I don’t deny that my husband and my children are some of the best and most important things in my life, and we’re all very close,” Cruz said. But being a state lawmaker “is business. This is the people’s business.”

•••

In late 2017, Cruz turned her sights away from Tallahassee, filing to run for a spot on the Hillsborough County Commission.

Then, as Cruz tells it, came the Parkland school shooting. For weeks, gun legislation consumed the Capitol. Cruz was forced to wrangle a Democratic caucus that was grieving and warring over priorities.

Amid the chaos, Republican Sen. Dana Young left the floor during a series of gun votes. Young later recorded her votes on the measures, which included an assault weapons ban, but Cruz remained furious at the senator for leaving the floor during the votes.

So Cruz decided to ditch her plans to run for county commission. Instead she challenged Young, initiating a seven-month-long political brawl in a swing Senate district in Tampa.

It took two recounts, and the final margin was just 411 votes when she beat Young. But the seat turned blue.

Cruz said it was local politics that clinched her race. Funding for local schools, not gun control, was her winning issue, she said.

Cruz sees the battle for Florida’s future as more of a numbers game than a contest of ideas. The party needs to focus on regaining political power, Cruz said, which is much more attainable in the Senate than the House.

To do that, Cruz said, Democrats need to recruit fundraisers like herself to compete in swing districts.

When asked what she would consider a successful first term, Cruz said she’s focused on getting Democrats go into her 2022 re-election bid with 19 seats, one short of half the chamber.

“I did my job,” Cruz said. “I brought in No. 17.”

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