Florida House District 66: Candidates differ on education, school security

Republican Nick DiCeglie and Democrat Alex Heeren have widely different viewpoints on key issues
Democrat Alex Heeren, left, and Republican Nick DiCeglie.
Democrat Alex Heeren, left, and Republican Nick DiCeglie.
Published October 17 2018

The candidates vying for the State House district that covers a swath of mid-Pinellas County said their runs for office are about service.

But that’s about all they have in common.

Nick DiCeglie, a Republican who defeated former prosecutor Berny Jacques in the Aug. 28 primary, is taking the leap after experiencing firsthand what it’s like to be a small business owner running his family’s garbage-hauling company.

Alex Heeren, a Democrat inspired by presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders’ concession speech, believes Tallahassee could use the perspective of a former teacher with the service record of an Eagle Scout.

Voters in the Republican-leaning House District 66 — which covers Seminole, parts of Largo and Clearwater, and coastal areas from Indian Shores to Belleair Beach — will decide Nov. 6 who will represent them in the seat left open by term-limited Larry Ahern, R-Seminole.

For DiCeglie, 44, his top priority comes down to jobs. He came to Pinellas from Long Island in 1996 to help his parents run Solar Sanitation, which serves residents and businesses in unincorporated areas.

The experience has taught him the importance of a competitive economy. It also led him to change his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican in February 2008 as he realized his values were more in line with his current party.

“I would rather compete ... in an open, free market than be in a government that picks winners and losers,” said DeCeglie, who is also the current chairman of the Pinellas County Republican Party.

If elected, he would continue what he called “good, conservative leadership coming out of Tallahassee” and work to eliminate regulation.

He added that he would take steps to continue building a statewide private flood insurance market and close loopholes in assignment-of-benefits claims — the practice of signing over insurance benefits to a third party.

And, as an Indian Rocks Beach resident who has seen the effects of Red Tide on businesses and tourism, DiCeglie said he thinks state leaders should use research to find a solution.

Heeren, 31, is a former math and business education teacher who now works in an administrative role helping teachers use technology in their classrooms.

He’s taken issue with education measures pushed by the Legislature in recent years that have poured money into charter schools and private school voucher programs and added a membership threshold for teachers’ unions. He wants to see more funding for public schools and less standardized testing for students.

Heeren is also an advocate for higher teacher pay. Bonuses such as the Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program, which awards teachers based on their SAT or ACT scores, illustrates a “tone-deafness” in Tallahassee, he said.

“We need the perspective of a teacher in Tallahassee,” he said.

His opponent said education is also a main focus. However, the father of two kids in private school said he supports private school vouchers and charter schools while adequately funding public schools. DiCeglie also supports more vocational training, such as welding and mechanics.

Both candidates agreed with some parts of a sweeping school security bill signed into law after February’s massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

DiCeglie said it took steps in the right direction, such as placing an armed security guard in every school. But the move to raise the minimum age for buying rifles from 18 to 21 is one of the “feel-good parts of the bill” to the staunch Second Amendment supporter.

He said he’d rather see use of technology, such as surveillance cameras tied directly to law enforcement and bullet-proof glass.

Heeren said he supports more gun regulations, such as universal background checks and limiting magazine sizes. He also thinks solutions should be science-based and fully funded. Districts across the state struggled over the summer to pay for a requirement to place armed guards in every school by the start of the school year.

“It’s progress that they tried to do something, but just saying that we did something isn’t enough,” he said.

Heeren, a lifelong Floridian, added that he would work to set aside more money for affordable housing and prioritize preserving the environment by cleaning pollution from waterways, preparing for sea level rise and breaking up reliance on fossil fuels.

“We have to be more forward-thinking,” he said.

Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or kvarn@tampabay.com. Follow @kathrynvarn.