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In Hillsborough, charter school money becomes an issue in House race

TAMPA — With her first campaign for state office barely off the ground, Hillsborough County School Board member Susan Valdes faces an organized effort by opponents of the charter school movement to keep her out of Tallahassee.

Valdes, now running for state House of Representatives in West Tampa's overwhelmingly Democratic District 62, has served on the School Board since 2004.

In 2016, a year she won re-election by a razor-thin margin, she accepted $12,000 from individuals and businesses affiliated with charter schools, which are growing rapidly in Hillsborough.

In an about-face Wednesday, Valdes put out a news release saying that in her bid for the house seat, she will not accept charter school money.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Susan Valdes will leave Hillsborough School Board to run for State House

Valdes said in the past that she was flattered that the charter sector — which uses state education dollars, but is opposed by public education advocates and organized labor — had confidence in her.

But the charter issue is not the only source of bad blood between Valdes and the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, which has thrown its support to her primary opponent Mike Alvarez.

The union also endorsed Bill Person, Valdes' opponent for the School Board seat in 2016.

Problems worsened during a year-long pay dispute that brought dozens of teachers to School Board meetings to testify at the podium and protest outside the building.

Teachers heckled Valdes from the audience. Ryan Haczynski, a high school teacher who has a blog and a podcast, called publicly for her to resign.

Outcry grew after Valdes used the word "foolishiness" one evening to describe the demonstrations, which included cowbells, horns and a hot dog stand.

Days after she entered the race on June 8, Alvarez took his first shot.

He said her resign-to-run letter, which she was required to submit to qualify in the Aug. 28 primary, came in so late that somebody must have bent the rules to accommodate her.

The Supervisor of Elections Office denied any wrongdoing, as did the school district, which Alvarez accused of holding up public records requests. The law says the letter had to be in 10 days before the filing deadline of June 22. It does not specify what time. The elections office said it received Valdes' letter at 7:30 p.m.

From that controversy, Alvarez moved onto charter schools.

"Every year, Republicans in Tallahassee and Washington chip away at our public education system," Alvarez wrote in a release. "Now, they've even enlisted a Democrat in this primary to destroy our public education system from within."

Alvarez said he will reject campaign contributions from charter organizations.

At a Democratic Hispanic Caucus potluck social on June 23, Valdes was asked if she would do the same, and if she would reject money from the National Rifle Association, the sugar industry and real estate interests.

In her response, which was captured on video, Valdes said, "The NRA would never support me. Charter schools have."

She continued: "When people donate to me, we make it clear, it's because they believe in what I'm doing. Not because I am going to support what they want me to support."

Valdes said she "led the charge" in 2013 to reject a charter school at MacDill Air Force Base. More accurately, the superintendent at the time, MaryEllen Elia, recommended that the board deny the application, which it did by a unanimous vote.

Valdes also suggested that criticism of her is the result of her role in Elia's firing in 2015. She then pivoted to a discussion of the improvements that resulted from the firing.

As for her remark about "foolishness," Valdes said, "two ladies out there in the auditorium, wearing blue shirts, union shirts, before they left, they flipped me a bird."

Recording Valdes as she spoke was Justin Diaz, an assistant state attorney.

He intended the video just for his closed Facebook group, Indivisible Action Tampa Bay.

But, he said, before he left the event, both Valdes and political consultant Victor DiMaio asked him to delete the video. "I told them both, I'm not going to," Diaz said.

DiMaio persisted, he said. By Diaz's description, DiMaio threatened to make trouble for him, both on his job and in the Democratic Party.

Diaz said he filed a grievance with the party. And he made the video public.

"My hope was that as a person who wants to run for the state Legislature, she would not want to be indebted to charters," he said. "I wanted to document it more than anything else."

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Later in the week, Valdes issued a statement saying she would not accept charter school money in the current campaign.

She called Diaz's footage a "'gotcha' video" and wrote that "Mr. DiMaio doesn't work for this campaign nor is he a spokesman for this campaign."

When asked why DiMaio was able to send out an earlier release that ended with the phrase "paid political advertisement paid for by Susan Valdes," she said, "He is a volunteer."

Alvarez, meanwhile announced Thursday that he has the endorsement of both the Hillsborough teachers union and the Florida Education Association.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or Follow @marlenesokol.