TAMPA — Republican state Rep. Jackie Toledo won her first term by 14 percentage points, a lopsided victory that shows how the district she represents favors a Republican.
Two years later, Toledo has drawn a challenge from Democrat Debra Bellanti, who faces a similar uphill climb in her quest to represent District 60, which includes parts of Town ‘n Country, South Tampa and a stretch of coastal Hillsborough County extending to Ruskin.
Bellanti, a 50-year-old Tampa marketing consultant, says her focus on increasing school funding and bolstering environmental protection is resonating with voters of all political stripes.
“Republicans and Democrats alike all agree funding education is a top priority,” she said. “That should not be a partisan issue. Our environment should not be a partisan issue.”
A married mother of a 9-year-old daughter who attends a public school, Bellanti said she got into the race to be a champion for what she calls “woefully underfunded” public schools. She pointed to studies showing the Florida ranks near the bottom nationally for per-pupil funding and teacher pay.
“Those are the things that really made me crazy,” she said.
Bellanti said she would work to find ways to shift money in the $89 billion budget to education.
Toledo is among Republicans who have touted what they call record levels of education funding in the last two years. But many school district leaders complained last year that the state provided little additional funding unless it came with strings attached while failing to cover the full costs of required measures relating to security and mental health services.
Toledo, a 42-year-old Tampa civil engineer and mother of five, agreed there’s more to do.
“I will continue to work to increase the amount of funding going into our schools,” she said.
Bellanti has also criticized Toledo’s support for a bill signed into law this year that created a new class of charter schools, drawing lawsuits from school districts. Toledo said the state needs to give parents and students alternatives to underperforming public schools.
“To give that parent an opportunity to get out of the schools they’re zoned for is great because that child will have an opportunity to succeed in life,” she said. She said test scores have improved for some minority students, an achievement she credits to school choice.
Pointing to the toxic algae plaguing Florida’s waterways, Bellanti contends the state is now paying for the Legislature’s refusal to act as a check on growth and pollution.
“Instead of preventing these things from happening,” she said, “we now have to react and clean up.”
Toledo said the Legislature has made some progress, dedicating hundreds of millions of dollars to Everglades restoration and expediting the repair of the Lake Okeechobee dike. “We can absolutely always do more but have invested a lot to preserve our environment.”
Toledo had an A rating from he National Rifle Association in 2016 but dropped to C after she voted for SB 7026, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act. Named after the Parkland school where 17 students were killed by a mass shooter, the law created a three-day waiting period for gun purchases, raised the age to purchase of a rifle from 18 to 21, and allows authorities to remove guns from the possession of those deemed mentally unstable.
Bellanti said the law doesn’t go far enough. She also favors a ban on assault-style rifles and limiting the sale of high capacity magazines. She has earned the NRA’s new, lower Fx rating for candidates who have the endorsement of gun-control advocacy groups Mom Demands Action and Everytown for Gun Safety.
The candidates diverge on a variety of other issues.
Bellanti said the state should accept federal money to expand Medicaid to thousands more Floridians. Toledo opposes the move, arguing the federal government could change the funding terms and leave the state on the hook for more of the costs. Toledo said the state has taken steps toward making health care more accessible and affordable by working to improve access to telemedicine and supporting so-called direct primary-care agreements in which doctors charge patients monthly fees in advance of providing services.
Bellanti supports the repeal of the state’s controversial stand your ground law. Toledo calls it “a tool to help people protect themselves,” though she said she’s open to amending the law.
Bellanti criticizes Toledo’s sponsorship of a bill, ultimately signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, that provides permanent annual funding for anti-abortion pregnancy centers. Critics say the clinics are anti-abortion organizations posing as comprehensive health care clinics. Toledo contends that committee meetings on the bill did not produce evidence that centers were distributing religious material or pressuring women to see their pregnancies through.
“They give women in need the resources they need to have a child,” Toledo said.
Toledo said she is most proud of her work to ban texting and driving, sponsoring a bill that passed in the House but died in the Senate. She said she’ll try again if re-elected.
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374.