The two candidates vying to represent Florida House District 60, which includes downtown St. Petersburg and portions of Pinellas Park, gather with their teams before setting out to knock on doors.
Cross, 44, who is the Democratic nominee, checks in with volunteers at St. Petersburg’s Woodlawn Park.
Henson, 32 and the Republican nominee, joins her team outside a Pinellas Park donut shop.
Both candidates have a deep relationship with the district they’re running to represent.
Born and raised here, Henson left to work on Capitol Hill but bought a house in Gulfport with her husband in 2020. Because that house is not in her district — candidates must live in the district they hope to represent — she said she is renting an apartment and looking to buy.
Cross, from Michigan, has been a district resident for 18 years.
For Cross, a scientist, the race hinges on voters with a longtime progressive streak, those who hope to protect imperiled local waterways and restore greater protections for people seeking abortions.
For Henson, a business owner and nonprofit founder, it’s about breaking from a political mold. She refers to herself as a conservative, rather than a Republican, prizing personal values over party allegiance — and she sees potential for an upset.
House District 60 was established during the state’s redistricting process this year. It’s almost identical to current House District 68, held by Ben Diamond (D-St. Petersburg), who did not seek re-election. Historically held by Democrats, the district is seeing swaths of red in its northern span beginning to counter downtown St. Petersburg’s deep blue.
Cross has been laser-focused on the environment since middle school.
She grew up in the Detroit suburbs, where her parents were public school teachers. When her mom taught a section on Earth Day, Cross was hooked.
Childhood dreams of being, say, a dolphin trainer evolved as Cross absorbed lessons on the environment’s effects on everyday life — from the way bacterial diseases can spread through water, or pesticides’ link to breast cancer, or how rising seas and stronger storms put homes and their residents at risk.
She’s been called a “one-issue candidate,” which she contests. The best part of the campaign, she said, has been hearing residents’ concerns about affordable housing, rising insurance premiums and reproductive rights. Even so, Cross said the environment affects every sector and every individual.
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“We know that 20% of the local jobs in this region are dependent on having a clean and healthy bay,” Cross said. “We only have to look at what happened with Red Tide last year. Tourists got turned off. Businesses suffered.”
Cross, who has the steady calm of a yoga instructor (which she is), has more than a decade of experience working in environmental policy. A scientist who earned a master’s degree from the University of South Florida, but not a “lab rat,” she feels uniquely qualified to take on some of the region’s most pressing threats.
As the Water and Land Policy Director for the nonprofit Florida Conservation Voters, Cross said she has worked with state legislators across party lines to secure funding for environmental protections and block bills that harm it. Previously, she was executive director of the Florida Wildlife Corridor.
Despite having grown up in the Midwest, Cross said this district is home. She came here for vacations — her grandparents were snowbirds, and her aunt lived in Pinellas. She’s lived in the Tampa Bay region longer than anywhere else.
“Who’s going to be a critical thinker? Who’s going to be willing to work with all parties involved? Who’s willing to collaborate to find solutions rather than push a personal agenda?” Cross asked.
She said if voters ask themselves those questions, they’ll choose her come November.
Henson is not your typical Republican candidate, and she’ll be the first to say it.
She’s a self-proclaimed pro-life, Christian conservative who celebrated the fall of Roe v. Wade — but she said she wouldn’t support stricter abortion laws in Florida. She supports exceptions to Florida’s 15-week limit on abortion for survivors of rape or incest, as well as when the mother’s life is in danger.
She campaigned for former President Donald Trump in the 2016 and 2020 elections — but said she was dismayed by his apparent lack of empathy, a core value of hers.
Her brother — a gay man — is a registered Democrat but a staunch supporter of his sister’s run for office. Her mother is married to a woman. Henson said she firmly supports marriage equality.
To Henson, the assumption that such beliefs couldn’t coexist is indicative of a broken political system and divided country, fueled by the media and “the radical left.” Issues deserve more nuance, she said.
Henson said she sees herself as something of a purple candidate — though her social media presence mirrors that of many Republican peers. On Instagram, she can be seen waving a ‘Let’s Go Brandon’ flag. On Twitter, she shares thoughts about “reverse racism.”
Henson grew up on welfare, raised by a single mom, with a father in and out of prison as he struggled with addiction. She got a job at an ice cream parlor at 14 to help her dad pay commissary.
She said the experience made clear the need to create opportunities for people to become self-sufficient, not just hand out safety-net checks.
In high school and college, Henson fell in love with theater, an escape. She double majored in theater and political science at USF.
One summer, she earned a Congressional internship, but had to take out a loan to afford taking it. That was the lightning rod for the nonprofit College to Congress, which Henson founded to fund paid internships for low-income college students on both sides of the aisle.
“If there’s one thing Republicans and Democrats can agree on, it’s keeping the rich in power,” Henson said. “I wanted to diversify Congress.”
Henson said she cares deeply about resources that help people find work that suits their strengths, such as trade programs.
“A lot of trade work leads to business ownership,” Henson added, while door-knocking on Saturday. “That’s amazing.”
She set a goal to meet with 10,000 voters before Election Day, and has a target of 200 door-knocks a day. It helps that she’s an extrovert.
“I have friends who will go home after a hard day and want to watch Netflix alone,” Henson laughed. “I have a hard day and I’m like, ‘I need to get out and talk to people, I need to hear somebody’s story.’”
Henson named Gov. Ron DeSantis and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem as two politicians she most admires, but she said her allegiance, if elected, will be to the people of her district, not a political agenda.
“It’s good politics to divide people, and what we’re doing isn’t good politics,” she said. “But it is good public service.”