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Janet Cruz is thinking about running for Florida Senate. Here’s why some Democrats aren’t celebrating.

A bruising primary between Janet Cruz and Bob Buesing would handicap the eventual nominee in a Tampa district that Democrats need to win in order to take over the Florida Senate.
Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Rep. Janet Cruz talk on the floor on of the House chamber earlier this month. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]
Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Rep. Janet Cruz talk on the floor on of the House chamber earlier this month. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Mar. 29, 2018

State Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, has shaken up the Hillsborough County political scene by letting out word that she may run in November for the state Senate against Republican Sen. Dana Young of Tampa.

Cruz, term-limited this year in her House seat, is currently filed to run for a county commissioner's seat.

If she follows through on switching to the Senate race, as insiders were saying Wednesday they expect her to, it would set up a clash between two of Tampa's most prominent political veterans, and the outcome could decide whether the minority Democrats approach parity in the state Senate in the near future.

Cruz, the outgoing House minority leader, has held her West Tampa-based House seat since 2010. Young has represented the city for eight years in the House and Senate and currently chairs the Senate health policy committee.

Cruz's move would also upset the plans of Bob Buesing, Democrat who's already challenging Young after losing to her for the Senate seat in 2016.

Many local Democrats feel Buesing could have won that race without the presence of a third candidate, Joe Redner, and believe he has a good shot at unseating Young this year. There was anger among some Buesing supporters Wednesday at Cruz's possible move to sideline Buesing.

But a bruising primary between the two, local Democrats say, would handicap the eventual nominee in what's expected to be one of the closest, hardest-fought and most expensive state Senate general election battles in Florida.

Cruz didn't return calls or text messages for comment Wednesday, but Democratic Senate leaders confirmed that Cruz, who previously rejected their attempts to recruit her instead of Buesing to run against Young, is now strongly considering it.

Local Democratic donor Alex Sink, who said she has talked to Cruz, said Cruz "is very serious about it."

Ione Townsend, Hillsborough County Democratic Party chairman, said she has talked to Buesing but not Cruz about the situation, but said, "The word is Janet will file in the next day or so."

Incoming Senate Democratic leader Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, who said she spoke to Cruz Tuesday, said Cruz's reason for changing her mind was the Parkland high school shooting.

"She talked about the energy that has resulted from what happened and the ability to continue in a legislative body that can make change," Gibson said.

Hillsborough Democrats also feel the wave of political activism around the gun issue since the shootings may make Young, a strong gun rights supporter, vulnerable in what they expect to be a Democratic wave year. Since the shootings, Buesing has made the issue the centerpiece of his campaign.

Buesing also didn't return calls Wednesday but said via text message, "Right now I am the only Democratic candidate who has filed in this race. We will see what transpires in the coming days. I am committed to serving this community in the best way I can."

Townsend said Buesing "is weighing all options. Is she scaring him off? No. I'm hearing from a lot of people that they would be unhappy if he left the race."

Jessica Vaughn, head of the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Tampa Bay, said reaction from members of the group, many of whom back Buesing, has included "outrage, mixed with disappointment and confusion."

Sink, who has been a leading supporter of Buesing, said Democrats should avoid a primary in the race.

"If Janet Cruz decides this is the right race for her, I would hope that she and Bob can sit down and work it out," Sink said. "We don't need a divisive primary in a Senate campaign that we could win that's going to cost $6 million."

Democrats have estimated that Young and the state Republican Party spent $5 million to $6 million to win her seat in 2016, figures Young doesn't dispute.

Democrats currently hold 15 Senate seats to the Republicans' 23, with two vacancies expected to split between the parties.

District 18, stretching from South Tampa to northwest Hillsborough, is one of two GOP-held districts that Hillary Clinton won in 2016, and thus considered one of the Democrats' top two chances to flip Republican seats. Winning both could bring them to 18 of the 40 Senate seats.

The race could also be important to Tallahassee power brokers — Cruz would be the second senator closely tied to a major lobbyist.

Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, is the daughter of lobbyist Ron Book, a situation that has caused critics to accuse her of conflicts of interest, which she denies.

Cruz's daughter, Ana Cruz, works for Brian Ballard, a preeminent lobbyist closely tied to Trump.


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