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  1. Opinion

Florida House: The Times Editorial Board recommendations

Eleven local seat are up for grabs.

The Florida House of Representatives will consider a host of challenges in the coming year, from managing the coronavirus pandemic to charting the state’s economic recovery. State representatives are elected to two-year terms and paid $29,697 per year. The general election is Nov. 3.

District 57

Mike Beltran [ FLORIDA HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES | Provided ]

Mike Beltran has legislated as promised since first winning election to the House in 2018. The Republican is solidly conservative, but his support for education and the environment give him bipartisan appeal.

Beltran, 36, a Harvard Law School graduate, continues to run on conservative themes, opposing tax increases, new gun restrictions and any expansion of gambling. But Beltran has supported putting additional funds into the classroom, and he also had advocated for school transportation funding, citing bus service as a student safety issue. Beltran opposes drilling off the coast of Florida, and he is open to reconsidering his support for new highway corridors across the state, which could be a costly, environmental mistake. He is a thoughtful lawmaker whose views aptly reflect this southeast Hillsborough County district, which includes the communities of Fish Hawk, Riverview, Sun City Center and Wimauma.

Democrat Scott “Mr. H” Hottenstein, 49, is a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and middle school teacher who offers a decidedly different agenda. He wants a review of tax exemptions and calls for new spending on health care, schools and other infrastructure. Hottenstein opposes offshore drilling and the transportation corridors, yet also sees areas where Republicans and Democrats can agree, such as in offering tax incentives to attract TV and movie production to Florida.

Beltran, though, has more depth on policy issues. He is attuned to the needs of small businesses and understands the growing pains of this fast-developing district. Beltran also brings a moderation to the Republican caucus that is helpful for the majority. The Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board recommends Mike Beltran.

District 58

Lawrence McClure

Lawrence McClure is another young Republican legislator who seems like a good fit for this east Hillsborough district. He deserves another term.

McClure, 33, was first elected in a special election in 2017 and reelected the following year. Self-employed in real estate, he is keenly aware of agricultural issues, essential in the district, which includes the historic strawberry fields around Plant City. McClure, though, understands the growing district has more diverse needs. He supports infrastructure investments, water quality efforts and an extension of unemployment benefits for those left jobless from the coronavirus pandemic.

Democrat Cleo L. “CL” Townsend Jr., 77, is a retired pharmacist and public health administrator. Townsend has a strong environmental platform, and he would spend more on core safety programs, from unemployment insurance to pre-K education. Though a first-time candidate, Townsend has been active in politics for years. He tried to recruit another candidate for this race, but decided to run himself because he did not want the seat to go uncontested.

Townsend deserves credit for stepping up and offering voters a principled alternative. And his candidacy calls attention to the growing diversity of the district, which includes the city of Temple Terrace, a community much more urbanized than the rural and suburban east. McClure will need to remain mindful of these very different constituencies and balance his attention to their distinct interests. The Times Editorial Board recommends Lawrence McClure.

District 59

Andrew Learned [ CANDIDATE | candidate ]

Democrat Andrew Learned is the sort of grounded, pragmatic voice the Legislature needs. His public service, life experience and business background make him the best choice for this middle-class district, which includes Brandon, Bloomingdale and Palm River.

Learned, 34, is a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Reserves and the owner of a Valrico-based tutoring center. He has a better grasp of the issues facing this state than most bay area candidates this year. Learned is right that Florida needs to redirect corporate tax breaks toward schools, infrastructure and other essential public services. He wants to bring greater equity to neighborhood funding, end Tallahassee’s trampling over local rule and realign spending from proposed highways-to-nowhere to rebuild Florida’s virus-ravaged economy.

Republican Michael Owen, 44, an attorney and first-time candidate, also wants to improve Florida’s infrastructure and expand occupational training. But his broader agenda is generic. Owen also seems more inclined to toe the partisan line.

Learned has specific ideas for rebuilding Florida’s economy and making the state more competitive. He recognizes the importance of tourism and agriculture and the economic potential of cleaner technologies. Learned understands small business and sees efficiencies to wring from the state budget. His centrist views and engaging nature are the right combination for this suburban district. The Times Editorial Board recommends Andrew Learned.

District 60

Julie Jenkins [ Courtesy of Julie Jenkins ]

Many candidates hype their bipartisan appeal and civic contributions, but Democrat Julie Jenkins is the real deal. Her work with small businesses, nonprofits and community groups makes her uniquely prepared to serve in Tallahassee.

Jenkins, 58, has worked with global, national and local institutions over a three-decade career in marketing and sales. She is a doer and natural leader whose involvement in serious local causes has benefited this community, whether working to protect Tampa’s tree canopy or expanding mass transit options. Jenkins would bring that same, all-business attitude to the Legislature. She opposes tax increases, supports home rule and wants to bring more of a customer-service approach to a range of government services, notably the state’s unemployment benefits system.

The incumbent, Republican Jackie Toledo, talks a bipartisan game but largely toes the party line. Aside from a noxious record on reproductive health, the 44-year-old Toledo, first elected in 2016, has largely gravitated to small-bore matters.

This south Tampa district is fiscally conservative but socially conscious. Its representative in Tallahassee should reflect that duality. Jenkins has the ability to bring together disparate groups, from chambers of commerce to the Sierra Club. She has a long history of helping small businesses survive and of ensuring that average people are heard. The Times Editorial Board recommends Julie Jenkins.

District 62

Susan L. Valdes

This one’s easy. Susan L. Valdes has been a champion of this northwest Hillsborough community for years. She is a strong advocate for immigrants and working families who brings a genuine conscience to the lawmaking process.

Valdes, a 55-year-old Democrat, was first elected to the House in 2018 after more than a decade on the Hillsborough County School Board. She has long been a proponent of language learning and other programs that help immigrants assimilate into the Tampa Bay area. As a school board member, she pushed career training for the non-college bound, and saw that educational offerings were more fairly dispersed throughout the large school system.

Valdes has brought those same priorities to the Legislature. She supports greater funding of the public schools, and increased wrap-around services for children in need of additional behavioral or other assistance. She wants the Legislature to suspend pork-barrel spending on “member projects,” and to redirect that money to core public services as Florida manages the economic fallout from the coronavirus. And she seeks greater transparency in the state’s procurement process, which all taxpayers should want.

Republican Angel S. Urbina Capo, a 49-year-old business owner, offers a light, incoherent agenda. He also sees no room for bipartisanship because Democrats “all lead this country to socialism." No-party candidate Laurie Rodriguez-Person, an exceptional education teacher, also is on the ballot.

Valdes is that rare legislator who can see a human face behind the Legislature’s actions. She has helped many immigrant families across the district, which includes West Tampa and Town 'N Country, pursue the American dream of education and opportunity. The Times Editorial Board recommends Susan L. Valdes.

District 64

Jessica Harrington

Jessica Harrington is a fresh, energetic choice who would fill the leadership gap this district has suffered in Tallahassee. Her support for schools, smarter tax and spending decisions and transparency in government should appeal to voters across partisan lines.

Harrington, 36, is a Hillsborough County school teacher and former educator in Alachua County who took 45 percent of the vote as the Democratic nominee for this seat in 2018. She proved that hard work and a compelling agenda could withstand the onslaught of special-interest money, and she’s running again with the same laser focus on middle-class interests. Harrington would redirect corporate tax breaks to education and public infrastructure, extend unemployment benefits as Florida continues to reel under the coronavirus pandemic and work to stop the proposed toll roads to nowhere. She speaks comfortably and candidly about the range of major issues facing the state. And the energy level and outreach she displays as a candidate promises that Harrington will be an accessible, visible lawmaker for all the residents in this sprawling district.

Tampa lawyer Traci Koster was selected by area Republican Party officials as their nominee after the incumbent, James Grant, withdrew from the race. Koster, 35, told the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board that she reached out to the incoming House speaker, Republican Rep. Chris Sprowls of Palm Harbor, to relay her interest in the seat. She declined in the Times’ interview to offer many specifics about major policy matters, aside from saying that she (like Harrington) opposed energy drilling off Florida.

Harrington is a demonstrably independent voice with a right-headed agenda and welcome sense of accountability. She is open and self-assured and understands the diversity of this two-county district, which extends from Northdale and Keystone in Hillsborough County to Oldsmar and Safety Harbor in Pinellas. The Times Editorial Board recommends Jessica Harrington.

District 65

Chris Sprowls

Chris Sprowls, 36, is in line to be the next House speaker, one of the most powerful positions in Florida government. He has to win his race first, and the Republicans have to maintain their majority in the House, both of which are likely.

The Palm Harbor Republican understands that one of his first challenges will be figuring out how to balance the state budget after the coronavirus pummeled tax revenues. He also wants to replenish state reserves, avoid taking on excessive debt and maintain Florida’s triple A bond rating. That will take a keen eye for eliminating wasteful spending. We’d hope he would take a close look at the unneeded M-CORES toll road project, which he supports. He has indicated he is open to ensuring the multi-billion dollar project still makes sense after completion of the early research phase and in light of the budget shortfall.

Sprowls, a lawyer and former prosecutor, sees room for more criminal justice reform, though he needs to follow through when it comes time to pass legislation. He at times has tempered Republican attacks on public education, which he should continue to do. He also led the effort two years ago to merge the University of South Florida St. Petersburg into the main USF campus.

Democrat Kelly Johnson is a lifelong Pinellas County resident, a Dunedin High School grad who studied at St. Petersburg College and received a bachelor’s degree from Clearwater Christian College. She would push for environmental safeguards, programs that create pathways to homeownership and laws that take guns away from repeat domestic violence offenders. She would also like to expand health care options for Floridians.

Sprowls has the experience and the political skills to get things done in Tallahassee. He and incoming Senate president Wilton Simpson of Pasco County could be a potent combination for the Tampa Bay area. For state House District 65, the Times Editorial Board recommends Chris Sprowls.

District 66

Nick DiCeglie

Nick DiCeglie, 46, is a first-term member of the House having won his race in 2018. He owns a waste and recycling collection business, so it makes sense that he speaks intelligently about the ways government helps and hurts small businesses, and the importance of better vocational training.

DiCeglie, who chaired the Pinellas Republican Party for four years and the Clearwater Chamber of Commerce, is personable and knowledgeable about the major issues facing the state. He’s realistic about how many projects can get funding in the upcoming Legislative session, given the hit that the coronavirus took on state coffers. While he supported the Republican-led effort to ensure felons paid fines, fees and restitution before being allowed to vote, he believes “there must be a clearly defined, accessible and transparent process for felons who have their rights restored to register to vote.” He also wants to ensure that out-of-work Floridians can sign up for unemployment benefits in a timely manner. “Far too many people spent months awaiting a simple response or even confirmation that their application was received. This is completely unacceptable,” he said.

Democrat Patricia Plantamura, 62, has a master’s degree in political science from the University of South Florida. She served six years on the Seminole City Council. In 2014, the other six members of the council took the rare step of censuring Plantamura for disruptive behavior.

For state House District 66, the Times Editorial Board recommends Nick DiCeglie.

District 67

Chris Latvala

Chris Latvala, 38, is a consultant and Realtor. The Clearwater Republican has shown a refreshing independent streak since first being elected to the House in 2014. He worked with Democrats to pass Jordan’s Law, named after a 2-year-old Largo boy who died from head trauma inflicted by his mother. The bill, which Latvala championed, requires training for law officers and encourages reduced caseload and improved communication among officers and caseworkers.

During his tenure, he has cosponsored legislation to make texting while driving a primary offense and to ban fracking. He’s also worked with Democrats on a school safety bill to include bans on assault weapons and large magazines. Latvala voted for the red flag law that allows law officers to ask a judge to take weapons away from people who may harm themselves or others. He says he would also consider a narrowly drawn ban on assault weapons.

Latvala recently spent time in the hospital fighting COVID-19 and has spoken about how the coronavirus needs to be taken seriously. His fellow legislators, some of whom don’t always wear masks in public or practice social distancing, should take note of Latvala’s experience and helpful warnings.

Democrat Dawn Douglas, 68, is running against Latvala for the second time, having lost to him by 8 percentage points two years ago. She easily won the Democratic primary in August and has a solid handle on state issues. The longtime Pinellas resident favors public transportation projects to help alleviate congestion and better support for schools and teachers. A teacher, Douglas also chaired the government relations committee for the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association.

Latvala thinks for himself and understands the issues. He’s gotten enough done over the past six years to think he will do the same over the next two. For state House District 67, the Times Editorial Board recommends Chris Latvala.

District 68

Ben Diamond

The Florida Democratic party would win more races if it fielded more candidates like Ben Diamond. He’s smart, engaged and knows the issues. Since his election in 2016, he has become one of the Democrats' brighter stars in Tallahassee and is slated to be the leader of the House Democratic Caucus for the 2022-2024 term, if he wins the next two elections.

Diamond, 41, understands the importance of building relationships, especially when your party doesn’t control either the House or the Senate. He is a strong advocate for the environment and for statewide resiliency efforts to prepare the state for the impacts of climate change including sea-level rise. He opposes the building of the M-CORES toll roads. He sees criminal justice as an area where Democrats and Republicans can find common ground. He would like judges to have more discretion in sentencing.

With a bachelor’s degree from Yale University and a law degree from the University of Florida, Diamond was counsel to Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink from 2007 to 2011. Diamond, who has a private law practice in St. Petersburg, was instrumental in passing Amendment 1, the environmental land-buying amendment that voters approved in 2014.

Republican Matt Tito, 33, served eight years in the Marine Corps, rising to the rank of captain. He’s run mostly a grassroots campaign, knocking on doors in the district, but recently received some help from the Republican Party with a mailer attacking Diamond.

Diamond has represented District 68 well over the last four years. He has a better grasp of the issues and his legal acumen comes in handy in Tallahassee. For state House District 68, the Times Editorial Board recommends Ben Diamond.

District 69

Jennifer Webb

For a first-term legislator in the minority party, Jennifer Webb has a solid track record of getting legislation passed, including bills that reduced the wait times for Medicaid patients and addressed protocols for dealing with children struggling with mental health issues.

Webb, 40, supports an assault weapons ban and allowing felons released from prison to vote, saying “voting should not be dependent upon one’s ability to jump over a financial bar.” She opposes the M-CORES toll roads. “We already have $895 million in clean water and drinking water infrastructure projects ready to break ground in the near-term which could also put people back to work,” she wrote in her questionnaire to the Times. “We should focus on funding and finishing our existing projects.” She would like to increase access to mental health and substance abuse treatment, in part to cut down on suicides.

Webb is a founding partner of a consulting firm that specializes in business development and community engagement. She is also the former director of community partnerships for the University of South Florida.

Linda Chaney, 61, is running for the state House for the first time, though she was on the St. Pete Beach City Commission from 2007 to 2009. She built and operated Tampa Bay Mobile Mammography, which she sold to Advent Health last year. Chaney says she supported Webb two years ago but doesn’t like the way she has represented the district.

Chaney understands the pressures of running a business, which would benefit her in the Legislature. She supports the Second Amendment and “common-sense legislation that keeps guns out of the hands of criminals, the mentally-ill, and those unfit to handle the responsibility.” If she’s elected, she would need to get up to speed on more of the issues facing the state.

Webb has proven to be an effective legislator, who remains energetic and full of ideas. For District 69, the Times Editorial Board recommends Jennifer Webb.

Candidate replies

The Times offers candidates not recommended by the editorial board an opportunity to reply. Those not recommended for State Representative can send a reply of up to 150 words by 5 p.m. Oct. 14 to Editor of Editorials Graham Brink at gbrink@tampabay.com.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news

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