ST. PETERSBURG — If money alone hasn’t determined the front-runner in the crowded Republican primary for Florida’s 13th Congressional District, then Wednesday’s candidate forum may have.
Former Capitol Hill staff member and lobbyist Amanda Makki appeared polished and confident navigating the awkwardness of a virtual debate. And when the candidates were allowed a chance to ask a question of one of their opponents, they all chose to challenge Makki.
Veteran George Buck asked her how long she has lived in the district. (“Five years," Makki replied.) Clearwater business owner Sharon Newby probed her on dark money, an apparent shot at the outside groups that have come to aid Makki in the race. Retired lawyer Sheila Griffin needled Makki on whether pharmaceutical companies should be able to use public research to make drugs that it sells at a premium.
“There is never a drug in your medicine cabinet that was made by the federal government," Makki said. "It’s really important to realize how important the pharmaceutical industry is right now.”
The queries covered the areas Makki’s opponents believe will make her vulnerable not only in a primary but against U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, the two-term Democratic incumbent who represents the St. Petersburg-based district. She is perceived by her rivals as an outsider backed by big money and she has faced criticism for her years lobbying for Danish pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk.
Yet Makki has the backing of top House Republicans, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and she has proven to be an able fundraiser, leading the field with $747,206 raised through March. She still has much of it on hand for the home stretch of the primary and to take on Crist, who has a $3 million war chest. Buck, who lost to Crist in 2018, has reported $612,000 in contributions, the second most, but has burned through much of it.
Perhaps the biggest threat to Makki’s front-runner status is veteran Anna Paulina Luna, who pulled out of the forum at the last minute. Luna had raised $370,000 through March, and boasts support from several influential names in President Donald Trump’s close orbit, including U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz.
All of the candidates in attendance said they strongly supported Trump and would campaign with him.
The forum, hosted by the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club, offered the first opportunity for the candidates to weigh in on civil unrest across the country and the murder of George Floyd, a black man who died while in custody of Minneapolis police.
Makki, Buck and Newby spoke out against the riots and looting in cities across America that took place in the days after Floyd’s death.
Newby said there are bad apples in every line of work and people don’t riot against teachers when one molests a student or against doctors when the elderly are abused in nursing homes.
“Quite frankly, when I see police having to put on riot gear, I think they should be treated as military that goes in a war zone,” Newby said.
Protesters have called for cities to shift budgets away from more law enforcement, or “defund the police," a slogan that has become a lightning rod for criticism from Republicans. Makki called the idea “anti-American.”
Buck said he had “good intelligence” that the protests were funded by domestic and international organizations, though he did not elaborate. Similar conspiracies have not held up to scrutiny.
Griffin, the lone black candidate in the race, said politicians need to better understand the decades of institutional racism that created segregated cities long after Jim Crow ended. She cited the black businesses in south St. Petersburg razed to build the interstate highway as an example of systemic racism that can affect communities for decades.
“The marches aren’t just about Floyd, they’re about a cry for help,” Griffin said.
On coronavirus, the candidates lauded Gov. Ron DeSantis’ handling of the pandemic and agreed with his approach to reopening the state.
“Publix did a billion dollars of revenue during the height of COVID,” Makki said. “If we can go to Publix, we surely can go to the beach.”
Moderator Adam Smith, a political strategist and former Tampa Bay Times reporter, asked the candidates if they wear a mask when they’re in public. Buck and Newby said they do not, suggesting that masks do not work. Griffin said she does if she is going somewhere with people who may be susceptible to the virus.
If elected, Makki said a top priority would be to help get an infrastructure bill through Congress that could fund much-needed transportation projects throughout the region. “It’s a parking lot on 275 some days,” she said.
Buck said he would work to keep the environment “pristine” and ensure quality education across the district. Griffin also said education would be a priority.
Newby said her top priority would be more civics lessons in school and to address what she described as the indoctrination of children by teachers and professors who “I’m not sure are even loyal to this country.”
“They should be required to take an oath of allegiance to this country,” she said.
District 13 includes most of Pinellas County. The primary election is August 18.