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Florida House races up for grabs. The Times Editorial Board recommendations
There are 12 contested races in districts that include at least part of Pinellas or Hillsborough counties.
People walk past the Florida capitol building, with the historic capitol building in the background during a legislative session, in January in Tallahassee.
People walk past the Florida capitol building, with the historic capitol building in the background during a legislative session, in January in Tallahassee. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | Associated Press ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Oct. 19|Updated Oct. 19

Members of the Florida House of Representatives are elected to two-year terms and paid $29,697 annually. The general election is on Nov. 8.

Related: Read the Times recommendations in other races.
Tampa Bay's state House districts in 2022
Tampa Bay's state House districts in 2022 [ Tampa Bay Times ]

District 58: Kimberly Berfield, Republican

Kimberly Berfield
Kimberly Berfield [ Kimberly Berfield ]

This race pits a former member of the state House against a successful businessman who both won their primary elections fairly easily. Both are congenial and do not seem likely to engage in over-the-top rhetoric if elected to office. We give the nod to Republican Kimberly Berfield.

Berfield, 51, was in the state House from 2000-2006 before making an unsuccessful run for state Senate. The former TV reporter and producer was deputy secretary of the Florida Department of Health from 2007-2012. She’s currently vice president of governmental affairs and community health for Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. She’s a graduate of Clearwater High School, St. Petersburg College, the University of Central Florida and Northeastern University, from which she received a master’s in business administration.

Berfield is a good communicator and sharp on the major issues facing Florida, including water quality and water use as the population grows. One of her top priorities is affordable housing, including better leveraging of the Sadowski affordable housing trust fund, which the Legislature often raids to pay for other unrelated programs. She also favors offering housing tax credits and creating more inclusionary zoning to spur more affordable housing development. As we said in the primary election, Berfield seems more civil than some modern politicians, willing to listen and solve problems, rather than score personal victories that do nothing to help Florida.

Bernard “Bernie” Fensterwald, 71, is a successful businessman who co-owns U-Store Management, a self-storage company. He’s worth about $32 million, according to his financial disclosure. He is a self-described progressive Democrat who would work to reduce the cultural conflicts in Tallahassee and has sensible views on public education, affordable housing and gun safety. His small business experience would help him bring a commonsense approach to governing, something that is too often lacking in the state Legislature. In 2016, Fensterwald lost his House race against Republican Chris Sprowls, who later became speaker of the House.

This was a close call, but Berfield’s experience and temperament will help her secure needed funding for the district. For State Representative in District 58, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Kimberly Berfield.

District 59: Berny Jacques, Republican

Berny Jacques
Berny Jacques [ courtesy Berny Jacques campaign ]

Berny Jacques garnered 51% of the votes in the Republican primary, easily winning over his two opponents. Jacques, 35, is a former prosecutor and conservative analyst with Bay News 9. Jacques is a graduate of Washington Adventist University and the Stetson University College of Law. He currently is the senior partnerships director at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay. Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed Jacques to the 6th Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission in 2020. He is endorsed by the Florida Fraternal Order of Police, Pinellas County Commissioner Kathleen Peters, former state Rep. Larry Ahern and Seminole Mayor Leslie Waters.

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Jacques served as vice chair of the Florida Federation of Young Republicans and currently sits on the City of Seminole’s Development Review Board and the Charter Review Committee. Jacques is active in the community and understands the law and is strong on legal issues.

Jacques is up against Dawn Douglas, who attended Largo High School and received a bachelor’s degree from the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg before starting a career as a teacher. Douglas, 70, has chaired the government relations committee for the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. She has also been a hospital board member and a Girl Scout leader. On abortion, she favors a woman’s right to choose. She also supports legalizing marijuana for adults. Douglas was a Democratic nominee for state House in 2018 and 2020, both times losing to her Republican opponent in the general election.

Jacques is running a more high-profile campaign, thanks in part to raising more than 15 times as much in campaign contributions. Jacques supported Florida’s recent 15-week limit on abortions and has called for even tighter restrictions, which this editorial board does not support. If you tend to vote largely on the issue of reproductive freedoms, Jacques’ stance will likely be a deal breaker. But overall he’s the stronger candidate in this race, the one much more likely to help bring home funding for important projects in the district.

For State Representative in District 59, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Berny Jacques.

District 60: Lindsay Cross, Democrat

Lindsay Cross
Lindsay Cross [ Photo provided by Lindsay Cross ]

Lindsay Cross, 44, has the right combination of experience, intelligence and priorities to represent this district. Cross is an environmental scientist with degrees from the University of South Florida and Colorado State University. She currently works as the Water and Land Policy Director for the nonprofit Florida Conservation Voters. She was executive director of the Florida Wildlife Corridor and held several positions with the Tampa Bay Estuary Program. Not surprisingly, she is exceptionally versed in advocating for Florida’s environment, while also realistic about how to address the friction between environmental causes and development, including housing. The state, she said, should enforce existing water quality regulations and enact recommendations from the Blue-Green Algae Task Force. Also, there should be greater accountability for catastrophic spills, including the one at Piney Point in Tampa Bay.

She too favors fully funding the Sadowski affordable housing fund. She wants the state Legislature to be a better partner with local governments by not preempting initiatives that help increase housing quantity and affordability. Local governments, she said, can find creative ways to entice developers to build more housing, including by streamlining permitting and allowing for more density where appropriate.

To grow the jobs base, Cross favors investing more in STEM and health care fields, as well as expanding trade and technical schools. Cross said she would fight for safe access to abortion and better early childcare.

Cross faces Republican Audrey Henson, a 32-year-old business owner also known for founding the nonprofit College to Congress, which helps students from disadvantaged backgrounds secure congressional internships. She also cofounded and owns By the Bay Bobcats, an excavation and site preparation company. Henson first announced that she was running in congressional district 13 before moving to the state House race.

Henson, a graduate of the University of South Florida, said she was raised by a single mother and had a father addicted to opioids who spent time in prison. She said growing up in a low-income home showed her how the government can lend a helping hand but also how programs can keep families from ever getting out of poverty. She has said that “socialism is the most serious pandemic facing America.”

Henson’s life story is compelling, but Cross is the more well-rounded candidate with a stronger grasp of the issues facing Florida and Pinellas County. For State Representative in District 60, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Lindsay Cross.

District 61: Janet Varnell Warwick, Democrat

Janet Varnell Warwick
Janet Varnell Warwick [ Courtesy of Janet Varnell Warwick ]

Democrat Janet Varnell Warwick, 56, is in an uphill battle to knock off incumbent Republican Linda Chaney in this Republican-leaning district in southwestern Pinellas County. The first-time candidate said she was prompted to get into the race in June when Chaney hadn’t drawn any serious opposition.

Warwick is a graduate of Leesburg High School, Eckerd College and the Florida State University College of Law. She works as a lawyer specializing in public interest litigation nationwide, including consumer protection, civil rights, workers’ rights and environmental matters. The Florida Bar awarded her consumer lawyer of the year in 2019. She is also a U.S. Army veteran.

If elected, she would advocate for better wastewater treatment, green agriculture and stormwater management. She supports appointing a state water quality czar and wants to hold polluters accountable by making them pay the true costs of polluting. On affordable housing, she said the state must step up its rental regulatory game. “The state attorney general can and should be called upon to stop anti-competitive market conduct and to enforce landlord-tenant protections, although the Legislature must increase those protections as well,” she said.

She plans to tackle rising insurance rates by, among other things, pushing the state to offer incentives to companies that reduce the administrative costs per policy. Cutting out the middlemen and requiring insurance companies to automate more of the process will help control costs.

She also wants to ensure women have access to adequate health care and reproductive freedom. Abortion, she said, is not the government’s business.

Chaney, 63, won the seat two years ago. This year, she helped the area secure $15 million to establish the Florida Flood Hub for Applied Research and Innovation at USF St. Petersburg, though the plans are in limbo after Gov. Ron DeSantis did not approve the funds by the Sept. 30 deadline.

Warwick has accused Chaney of not thinking for herself, instead following what Republican leaders tell her to do. The state House has a top-down leadership structure, so it’s not uncommon for legislators, especially first-term lawmakers, to adhere closely to the priorities of the speaker of the House and other leaders. But Chaney voted in favor of many of DeSantis’ “cultural war” priorities, including the “Parental Rights in Education” bill, also known as the “don’t say gay” bill, and bills that make it easier to ban books and harder to discuss race, gender and discrimination in schools and workplaces. She also supported a bill that Florida Power & Light helped write that would have limited the expansion of rooftop solar, a bill that even fellow Republican DeSantis could not abide and one he eventually vetoed.

Chaney built and operated Tampa Bay Mobile Mammography, which she sold to Advent Health in 2019. She understands the challenges of running a small business and what the government can do to help. But Warwick would bring more independent thinking to the Legislature. For State Representative in District 61, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Janet Varnell Warwick.

District 62: Michele K. Rayner, Democrat

Michele Rayner
Michele Rayner [ handout ]

Michele K. Rayner, 41, was first elected to the state House in 2020 and easily won the Aug. 23 primary against two fellow Democrats. Her priorities include creating more affordable housing and exploring way to incentivize developers to build more affordable housing by waiving certain fees and other requirements, something she tried to address during her first term. She would also like to tackle food insecurity and improving infrastructure and transportation.

Rayner has a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Florida State University and a law degree from Florida Coastal School of Law. She started her own law firm — Civil Liberty Law — after working as an assistant public defender and at two local law firms.

Rayner’s opponent, Jeremy Michael Brown, 48, is a retired Green Beret currently running his campaign from the Pinellas County Jail, where he awaits trial for allegations related to the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, including eight felony charges.

For State Representative in District 62, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Michele K. Rayner.

District 64: Susan L. Valdes, Democrat

Susan Valdes
Susan Valdes [ Courtesy S. Valdes ]

Democrat Susan L. Valdes has been a champion for the middle-class and minority communities since first winning election to the Florida House in 2018. She is more suited and better prepared than her opponent to advocate for working families in Tallahassee.

Valdes, 57, is a former Hillsborough County School Board member who was a strong voice for educational equity and workforce training long before promoting those same causes in Tallahassee. As a state representative, she has strongly supported health care and job development programs and worked to help immigrant families assimilate across the region.

Valdes continues to make education and housing affordability her priorities. She wants the state to end the “culture war nonsense” and invest more in per-pupil spending, apprenticeships and programs that cultivate emerging industries. She would fully fund the state’s affordable housing programs and have the state work with local governments on new incentives to increase the housing stock. Valdes would expand solar power and other clean-energy programs to address the threats from rising seas, extreme weather and other climate-related impacts. And she is clear-eyed about the dangers of having more guns on the street, favoring an assault rifle ban and stricter background checks and opposing open carry.

Republican Maura Cruz Lanz, 67, a lifelong Tampa resident, helped operate a family construction business. Her campaign website says she “believes that the U.S. government has become very tyrannical,” and she supports the carrying of weapons without a permit and abortion restrictions. Beyond that, she’s a fairly blank slate.

Voters in this district, which includes West Tampa, Town ‘N Country and Egypt Lake, need a serious, seasoned legislator who’ll focus on bread-and-butter issues. Valdes is trusted in the district’s heavily Hispanic communities, and she’s unafraid to fight for a progressive agenda that advances her constituents’ real-life concerns.

For State Representative District 64, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Susan L. Valdes.

District 65: Jen McDonald, Democrat

Jen McDonald
Jen McDonald [ Jen McDonald ]

Democrat Jen McDonald is one of the brighter lights seeking legislative office this year, and her experience, priorities and energy could be a winner for this South Tampa and coastal suburban district.

McDonald, 42, has owned an insurance business since 2013 and been active in local government, civic and business organizations. That background gives her a keen understanding of the district, the political process and what residents need from Tallahassee. She would be a valuable resource as the Legislature grapples to get property insurance under control. More broadly, she would invest more in affordable housing to help with skyrocketing rents and land costs, and help local governments maximize their resources by better aligning growth with public infrastructure.

McDonald would spend more on teachers and the public schools and on entrepreneurship programs at community colleges. She opposes offshore drilling near the Florida coast while supporting protections for the Florida Wildlife Corridor. She opposes government interference on abortion, calling it a private medical decision between a woman and her doctor. She would work to expand Medicaid access for hundreds of thousands of working Floridians, and seek state help for improving Hillsborough’s transportation system.

Her opponent, Republican Karen Gonzalez Pittman, 60, is a businesswoman who has been active in area school PTAs and the Hillsborough County Medical Association Alliance. She wants to expand mental health and school safety funding, and said she would have voted for Florida’s 15-week abortion ban, along with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.

Pittman hasn’t widely articulated her views on most major policy issues, and the attack ads she’s run against McDonald reflect the ugliness that’s turning voters off and causing Floridians to lose faith in the democratic process. McDonald isn’t afraid to share her agenda. Her active involvement with civic and business groups gives her a well-tuned ear to the interests of average people. Residents in this district, which extends from South Tampa to Westchase, need a representative focused on housing, insurance, flooding and other everyday challenges of living in coastal Florida. McDonald is prepared to serve effectively from the start and would reflect well on her constituents back home.

For State Representative in District 65, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Jen McDonald.

District 66: Traci Koster, Republican

Traci Koster
Traci Koster [ Traci Koster ]

Traci Koster, 37, was first elected to the state House in 2020, after getting into the race late when the incumbent dropped out to take another job with the state. She’s a family law attorney with degrees from the University of Central Florida and the Stetson University College of Law.

Over the past two legislative sessions, she supported bills that allowed Florida youth to expunge their arrest records with the exception of forcible felonies such as murder, rape and kidnapping, and protected domestic violence victims by speeding the delivery of protective orders to law enforcement. She filed a bill that would allow time off a probation period for good behavior and completion of life-skills programs. She also successfully pushed for revamping the Birth–Related Neurological Injury Compensation Association, or NICA, which delivered new benefits and protections for 215 families in the program, including mental health services, representation on the board of directors and retroactive compensation of $150,000. In May, Gov. DeSantis signed into law Koster’s bill prohibiting judges and justices from lobbying for six years after leaving the bench.

Koster has a deep understanding of family law and criminal justice issues. While we don’t agree with all of her positions, we hope that if she is elected she continues to push for more criminal justice and mental health reforms that benefit Floridians and children in particular.

Koster is up against Democrat David Tillery, a first-time candidate. The 59-year-old started his career as an electronics sales rep and now works as an entrepreneur, comedian and singer-songwriter. He founded the nonprofit North Tampa Dart Association, which has raised money for charities including Autism Speaks. The weekly comedy show he runs has raised money for Homeless Helping Homeless.

If elected, he would push for more funding for public education, improve voter and civil rights for minorities, and correct unfair policies that affect Medicare patients, particularly the disabled and seniors. He would introduce a bill that mandates that large real estate companies allocate 10 percent of their properties to affordable housing. He would also support abolishing assignment of benefits, which allows property owners to sign over their insurance rights to a third party like a contractor or repair firm. The practice, which the state Legislature has curtailed in recent years, has been blamed for running up high attorney’s fees and increasing insurance rates.

Tillery is likable, and he would certainly add some energy to the state House. But on the whole, Koster is more likely to help move the needle on improving the state’s criminal justice system. For State Representative in District 66, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Traci Koster.

District 67: Fentrice Driskell, Democrat

Fentrice Driskell
Fentrice Driskell [ Fentrice Driskell ]

Democrat Fentrice Driskell’s sound judgment, relevant agenda and solutions-oriented approach make her an effective representative in Tallahassee. She deserves another term.

Driskell is a 43-year-old Tampa attorney who was first elected to the state House of Representatives in 2018. A genuine consensus-builder, Driskell has helped find common ground on hot-button issues while also putting the specific interests of this northeast Hillsborough County district on the Legislature’s political radar.

A graduate of Harvard University, where she was the first Black woman elected student government president, Driskell has been a consistent advocate for public schools, improved access to health care for lower-income Floridians and for protecting the environment and voting rights. In 2021, Driskell sponsored a police reform bill that expanded background checks for law enforcement officers and improved training on the use of force. The measure passed unanimously in both the House and Senate, reflecting Driskell’s ability to build bipartisan support on meaningful legislation.

Republican challenger Lisette Bonano, 63, is a former U.S. Army officer and first-time candidate. She describes herself as a “constitutional conservative” who supports freedom of speech and religion, gun rights and school choice. It’s unclear what Bonano would actually do; on abortion, she supports “sparing the innocent child” even in cases of “actual rape and incest.” Driskell, by comparison, would not shorten Florida’s current cap on abortion to fewer than 15 weeks, and she “unequivocally” supports exceptions for rape, incest and human trafficking.

Driskell is the far more qualified candidate in the race, and her proven ability to work across partisan lines shows that she acts as a representative for all. She is a strong advocate for the University of South Florida, a major economic engine in this district, which includes the university area, New Tampa and Thonotosassa. The respect she commands on both sides of the aisle makes the entire Tampa Bay delegation stronger in Tallahassee.

For State Representative District 67, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Fentrice Driskell.

District 68: Lawrence McClure, Republican

Lawrence McClure
Lawrence McClure

Republican Lawrence McClure made a mistake by sponsoring an anti-solar bill this year (that Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed), and we don’t get his logic that government should keep its hands off guns but not off a pregnant woman’s body. Still, he generally looks out for agricultural interests in eastern Hillsborough County, and still seems the better fit for this district.

McClure is a 35-year-old business consultant who was first elected to the state House of Representatives in 2017. He brings a strong agricultural background to this rich farming region, which includes Plant City and the Dover area. McClure is also good at advocating for hometown needs.

Democratic challenger Lorissa Wright is a 22-year-old substitute teacher and first-time candidate who has lived in Hillsborough County for the past nine years. She has a decidedly progressive agenda, calling for new affordable housing initiatives, criminal justice reform and free tuition in exchange for public service.

Wright creates some spark with her forward-looking proposals, but it’s unclear how she’d advance her agenda in the Republican-controlled Legislature. She has some good ideas for protecting the agriculture industry, but McClure is a strong and seasoned advocate already.

For State Representative District 68, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Lawrence McClure.

District 69: Andrew Learned, Democrat

Andrew Learned
Andrew Learned [ Learned campaign ]

Democrat Andrew Learned has been a sensible, moderate voice in the Legislature since first being elected to the Florida House in 2020. His military background and experience as a small business owner make Learned a good fit for this district, which includes the southeast Hillsborough County communities of Riverview, Boyette and Lithia.

Learned, 36, has been a strong supporter of public schools, improvements to the transportation system and environmental protection. He has worked across the partisan aisle to find common-sense solutions on school choice, managing the COVID-19 pandemic and other polarizing issues. Learned talks of the need to foster a “business-friendly environment” in Florida that transcends political ideology, promoting new growth industries such as in space, solar and electric vehicles. He supports a woman’s right to her own reproductive choices, saying this should not be the government’s decision.

Republican Daniel “Danny” Alvarez is a 48-year-old attorney and former U.S. Army officer who also serves as general counsel for the union representing Tampa police department officers and retirees. Alvarez’s priorities including promoting public safety, and he describes himself as “pro-life candidate” who would “vote favorably” on abortion restrictions that had “exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother.” Alvarez has not offered much of a policy agenda, and he’s campaigning heavily on his long history of civic involvement. While sharp and affable, it’s hard to see what Alvarez would bring to Tallahassee besides another voice to the Republican majority.

Learned has a command of the people and priorities of this district. A lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve, he owns a tutoring center and talks conversantly about the everyday needs of families. His energy and accessibility make him a true citizen legislator.

For State Representative District 69, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Andrew Learned.

District 70: Mike Beltran, Republican

Mike Beltran
Mike Beltran [ Courtesy of Florida House of Representatives ]

Voters in this race have a choice between a veteran lawmaker with hard-right views and a progressive unknown who’s largely campaigning under the radar. We give the nod to Republican Mike Beltran for taking this office with the seriousness it requires.

Beltran is a 38-year-old attorney first elected to the state House in 2018. He favors an outright abortion ban, believes the Legislature “fully supports public education” and says the state should preempt development restrictions in the suburbs to make housing more available and affordable. This editorial board does not support swaths of his agenda, but Beltran at least presents himself to voters and explains clearly why he supports certain issues. He’s transparent, and he is responsive to his constituents.

Democrat Eleuterio “Junior” Salazar Jr., 35, of Ruskin works as a collections specialist and events coordinator. He promises to focus on “fundamental kitchen table issues” such as housing and civil rights. But Salazar is short on specifics and running a low-profile campaign. Voters deserve better.

Beltran is strong on some environmental issues, which is important to this coastal area district, which extends from Apollo Beach and Ruskin in Hillsborough County south to northwest Manatee. He also is a known entity in Tallahassee who can be helpful in getting state money for local projects.

For State Representative District 70, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Mike Beltran.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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