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Abortion, ‘culture war’ controversies divide candidates in state House 70 race

The race for the seat that represents portions of Hillsborough and Manatee counties pits Republican House Rep. Mike Beltran against Democrat Eleuterio “Junior” Salazar Jr.
Members of the Florida House of Representatives begin the 60th day of the annual session in Tallahassee in 2020. The race for the House's new District 70 seat pits Republican incumbent Rep. Mike Beltran against Democrat Eleuterio “Junior” Salazar Jr.
Members of the Florida House of Representatives begin the 60th day of the annual session in Tallahassee in 2020. The race for the House's new District 70 seat pits Republican incumbent Rep. Mike Beltran against Democrat Eleuterio “Junior” Salazar Jr. [ SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES ]
Published Nov. 1, 2022|Updated Nov. 1, 2022

Voters in the new state House District 70 have starkly different choices in the two candidates vying for the seat that represents portions of southwest Hillsborough County and northwest Manatee County.

Republican Mike Beltran, a conservative attorney and two-term incumbent, has made a complete abortion ban a main plank of his platform. He has been a reliable ally to Gov. Ron DeSantis, supporting controversial bills that banned critical race theory and certain LGBTQ teachings or conversations in schools. Beltran also was an enthusiastic backer of the governor’s decision to oust Hillsborough’s twice-elected state attorney Andrew Warren.

Democrat Eleuterio “Junior” Salazar Jr. of Ruskin is an account manager in the financial services industry and a progressive activist who casts himself as a foil for what he calls the Legislature’s and DeSantis’ “culture war.” Salazar, 35, vows to fight for abortion rights and focus on “kitchen table” issues.

The matchup is a result of some shuffling due to redistricting.

Beltran, 38, was first elected in 2018 to the House’s District 57 seat and won reelection in 2020. Then redistricting shifted his Lithia home to the newly drawn District 69, which likely would have pitted him a competitive race against Democrat Andrew Learned.

Instead, Beltran announced he would move to the new District 70, which includes a portion of his old district and more heavily favors GOP candidates — a little more than 54% of voters in the new district backed Donald Trump in 2020 and nearly 56% voted for DeSantis, according to an analysis by redistricting expert Matthew Isbell.

The Hillsborough portion of the district includes communities such as Ruskin, Apollo Beach and part of Wimauma.

Abortion ban is a top priority for Beltran

Beltran would not agree to a phone interview for this story. In an email exchange, he threatened to sue a reporter if the Tampa Bay Times published his address.

Beltran made the threat after a reporter asked him whether he has moved to District 70 and if so, where he is living, to verify he’s complying with a Florida law that requires state legislative candidates to reside in their district at the time of their election. Beltran said in an email that he won’t be disclosing his new address because the information is “protected under Florida statute” because he and his family are “stalking victims.” (Florida law allows people who believe they are stalking victims to seek to have their personal information exempted from the state’s public records law).

The married father of two said he intends to comply with the residency law.

State Republican Rep. Mike Beltran.
State Republican Rep. Mike Beltran. [ Courtesy of Florida House of Representatives ]

When the Times asked for more details about the alleged stalking, Beltran provided a Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office report from May 2020 after Beltran reported that someone had placed a Planned Parenthood sticker on his home mailbox.

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“The complainant feels the sticker was placed there due to his stance on certain issues,” the report states. Deputies investigated but could not identify who placed the sticker on the mailbox.

Beltran provided written answers to a range of questions in a candidate questionnaire from the Times’ editorial board.

He included banning abortion as one of his top three legislative priorities, along with protecting the Constitution and limiting government spending and power. He did not directly answer when asked by email if he would support exceptions for rape, incest or lethal fetal anomalies. (DeSantis signed a 15-week ban into law this year that does not make exceptions for cases of incest, rape or human trafficking but does allow people to get an abortion if their health is threatened or if their baby has a “fatal fetal abnormality.”)

On the issue of limited affordable housing in Florida, Beltran blamed Congress and inflation for the problem and said state government should preempt development restrictions and “allow the private sector to build until the price abates due to increased housing stock, based upon ordinary capitalist principles.”

Beltran claimed the Legislature “fully supports education,” citing increased school funding and pay for teachers. He blamed Hillsborough school officials for what he called financial “mismanagement.”

“Hillsborough must learn to live within its means and prioritize teachers and wholesome programming,” he wrote.

Beltran took credit for what he said were record investments “for acquisition of preserves and protection of our natural resources” and said the state must invest more in “water management and prevent aquifer depletion, saltwater intrusion, and excessive runoff.”

Asked about Florida’s gun safety laws, Beltran said he would “protect open carry, constitutional carry, campus carry, and church carry.”

“I would allow no more regulation, impose no more fees, and tolerate no more violations of the Constitution,” he wrote. He added that he would support “significantly enhanced mental health services, including better and more compassionate outreach to youths suffering from mental illness.”

Beltran was on hand when DeSantis signed HB 1557 at a Spring Hill charter school. The law prevents instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade and requires that such instruction be “age-appropriate … in accordance with state academic standards” in older grades. Republican lawmakers titled the measure the “Parental Rights in Education” bill. Opponents labeled it the “don’t say gay” bill.

Related: Opponents try again to block Florida’s so-called ‘don’t say gay’ education law

When DeSantis called a news conference in August to announce that he was suspending Warren, the Hillsborough state attorney, Beltran was among the speakers who praised the move. DeSantis pointed to pledges Warren signed with other elected prosecutors across the nation vowing not to prosecute cases involving abortion or transgender health care. The governor also referenced Warren’s policies against prosecuting certain nonviolent misdemeanors. Warren is fighting his removal in court.

Beltran himself is in the running for a spot on the bench.

His name was on a list of 18 applicants that the state’s Sixth District Judicial Nominating Commission sent to DeSantis as options to fill three vacancies on the newly created Sixth District Court of Appeal. The court is set to begin hearing cases in January.

Salazar focused on reproductive rights, environment

Salazar previously lived in Bradenton and ran unsuccessfully for mayor and City Council there. He is married and has at least one child, a daughter. He is a client services manager at JPMorgan Chase, according to his LinkedIn page.

Salazar did not respond to numerous attempts by the Tampa Bay Times over several weeks to get information for its general election voter guide and this story. And he doesn’t appear to be doing much active campaigning.

Eleuterio “Junior” Salazar Jr., the Democrat running in the 2022 general election for the Florida House of Representatives District 70 seat, is pictured in a screenshot from his campaign's Facebook page.
Eleuterio “Junior” Salazar Jr., the Democrat running in the 2022 general election for the Florida House of Representatives District 70 seat, is pictured in a screenshot from his campaign's Facebook page. [ Facebook ]

He stopped posting to his campaign’s social media accounts in early July and has only raised about $120 since mid-August, campaign finance records show. All told, he has raised a little more than $9,000 in contributions; about a third of that was his own money. He has spent nearly $3,600, nearly all of that between April and May. Beltran, by comparison, has raised nearly $141,000 and spent about $83,000.

“Yes, I’m still alive. No, I’m not ignoring anyone,” Salazar said in a public post on his personal Facebook accounts in early October. “I’m focused on my mental health and when I’M ready, you’ll see me back in action. Until then, take care of YOU, and remember #mentalhealthmatters

Ione Townsend, chair of the Democratic Executive Committee, said the committee wanted to give money to Salazar’s campaign but could not because he did not respond to messages from party representatives.

Voters can glean some of Salazar’s stances from his campaign website, which describes him as a proud, openly gay Latino husband and father and highlights his positions on LGBTQ rights, the environment, housing and women’s rights.

“As a parent myself, I am much more concerned that my daughter won’t be able to freely talk about her family at school,” Salazar says on his website. “I am deeply troubled knowing that the language of the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill is so intentionally broad that it could encourage bad faith actors to sue our schools for any number of perceived slights.”

Salazar said he would fight to ensure the Legislature dedicates money to help increase affordable housing, especially for renters. He claims to have “personally helped lead the charge and sound the alarm around the Piney Point disaster in 2021,″ referring to the leak at the former phosphate plant in Manatee County that led to the evacuation of more than 300 homes and the pumping of more than 200 million gallons of wastewater into Tampa Bay.

“Florida is horrifically deregulated and we’re all going to suffer for it, in our health and our finances,” Salazar says on the website. “I will ensure more equitable development projects that will reward environmentalism and ingenuity of design.”

The website says the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe v. Wade “strikes at the modern interpretation of the rights to privacy itself, and every civil right we hold dear is on the chopping block because of it.”

“As an activist, I’ve shown up for organizations like Women’s Voices of SW Florida, and I intend to carry that full-throated support for reproductive justice into the state legislature,” Salazar says on the site.

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