Florida faces serious challenges ranging from demand for better access to affordable health care to parents’ frustration with the emphasis on standardized testing in public schools. There are disagreements over how much control to give local governments, whether to overhaul the criminal justice system and how to invest in transportation options such as transit. Hot-button issues such as legalizing recreational marijuana, legalizing sports betting and limiting abortion rights also may come up next year. The Florida Senate has 40 members and currently has 23 Republicans, 16 Democrats and one vacancy. State senators are elected to four-year terms and are paid $29,697 per year.
District 16, Republicans
In eight years in the Florida House, Ed Hooper was a mainstream Republican who often followed the more conservative GOP leadership. The retired firefighter knows state issues and this district well, and he is the Republicans’ logical choice to fill the vacancy left by the resignation last year of former Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater.
Hooper, 70, is a former Clearwater city commissioner who served in the House between 2006 and 2014, then lost a race for county commission. His priorities include easing congestion through alternatives such as bus rapid transit, and reforming property insurance to end abuses regarding assignment of benefits. He also supports closing the gun show loophole on background checks of gun buyers and banning high-capacity magazines. He supports the repeal of no-fault auto insurance and making texting while driving a primary offense.
In the Senate, Hooper says he would be more independent. He supports home rule, which House Republicans attacked this year. He also continues to support requiring retailers to collect sales taxes on internet sales, and he says too much education money is going to charter schools.
Leo Karruli, 51, is a Palm Harbor restaurant owner and entrepreneur. The first-time candidate says he knows the district well and would not be beholden to special interests. He talks generally about keeping taxes low, fighting rising property insurance premiums and encouraging competition with Duke Energy to provide solar power.
District 16 covers north Pinellas County and a portion of southwest Pasco County. Hooper knows the issues best and could make the most immediate impact. In the Republican primary for Florida Senate District 16, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Ed Hooper.
District 20, Democrats
The two Democratic primary candidates embrace a similarly progressive agenda focusing on health care and jobs. Both are personable and believe they would be effective even as first-time candidates for public office. Kathy Lewis has a clearer vision for advancing her priorities and a more practical approach to working in a bipartisan fashion.
Lewis, 56, is a writer and Wesley Chapel resident who moved to the area nine years ago. She said she was motivated to seek public office after experiencing the hardship of working to obtain benefits for a daughter with a disability. "I started looking at other problems in the state," she said. The Baltimore native supports accepting federal Medicaid expansion funds, increasing public school spending and raising the minimum wage. She also wants to impose stronger regulations on companies that care for the disabled. Lewis is a strong proponent of home-rule and criminal justice reforms that would give judges more discretion in nonviolent criminal cases. One of her more creative ideas is a tax on guns and ammunition to provide additional funding for school security.
Joy Gibson, 40, a nonprofit executive who has lived in the district for six years, would focus on Florida’s most vulnerable by working to increase funding for health care, housing and job development. She understands how poverty, opioid abuse, lack of educational opportunities and other problems contribute to a downward spiral. She states her positions clearly, and her progressive platform speaks to the needs of many in the under-served communities across the district, from north Tampa and Zephyrhills to Dade City.
Lewis, though, seems to have a better grasp of the Legislature’s role in improving the every day lives of Floridians. Her potential to help move an agenda makes her the best choice in this race. In the Democratic primary for Florida Senate District 20, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Kathy Lewis.
District 20, Republicans
This one’s easy. Sen. Tom Lee of Thonotosassa has represented this area for years. His deep understanding of the district, which includes parts of eastern Hillsborough, southern Pasco and northern Polk counties, makes him the obvious choice.
Lee, 56, has spent 16 years in the Senate since winning his first election in 1996, and he served as Senate president from 2004-2006. During that time, he was recognized as a conservative on budget issues but moderate on education and social policy. As president, he sought to curb the reach of the lobbying corps. A longtime homebuilder with deep ties to eastern Hillsborough, Lee has brought a nuanced view to governing, championing growth and business but recognizing the need to protect Florida’s schools, environment and infrastructure from runaway development.
Lee was not a strong voice for local control in several key instances in recent years. But he generally tries to balance his pro-business stance with a healthy approach to what’s best for the state, and he is not shy about challenging Senate leadership and charting his own course. He was a key supporter of a plan in 2015 that would have drawn down federal dollars to expand Medicaid to provide health insurance for 800,000 Floridians.
John Houman, 71, is a real estate broker who lost a race for a different Senate seat in 2016. He rambles about the need for good manners but offers little agenda. Lee’s grasp of the district and public policy and the role he’s played as a bulwark to many of the worst excesses in Tallahassee make him the only sensible choice.
In the Republican primary for Florida Senate District 20, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Tom Lee.