Times recommends: For the Florida House

The Tampa Bay Times makes its recommendations for the Florida House of Representatives in the Aug. 28 primary election.
The Tampa Bay Times makes its recommendations for the Florida House of Representatives in the Aug. 28 primary election.
Published Aug. 3, 2018

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. Hot-button issues such as legalizing recreational marijuana, legalizing sports betting and limiting abortion rights also may come up next year.

Mike Beltran | District 57, Republicans

It's difficult to compare the choices that Mike Beltran and Sean McCoy offer in this race because — unlike his opponent — McCoy has spent the campaign avoiding the media. Beltran is a solid conservative and accepts that public scrutiny comes with asking for the public's trust.

Beltran, 34, a Harvard Law School graduate, is a first-time candidate who operates his own general litigation firm. A Hillsborough County resident for nine years, he sticks to solidly conservative themes, opposing new taxes (even for transportation improvements), additional gun restrictions and any expansion of Medicaid without new cost controls. He has a weak grasp on some key policy issues; one priority would be to help the Trump administration address "sanctuary cities" in Florida (which do not exist). But Beltran calls public education "a cornerstone of what makes America great" and supports more local control of school funding decisions. He also supports the ban on offshore oil drilling in Florida waters.

Beltran's support for moving more dollars into the classroom should be a welcome priority in the FishHawk, Riverview and Apollo Beach areas, given the growing demand for classroom space in southern Hillsborough. In the Republican primary for Florida House District 57, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Mike Beltran.

Joe Wicker | District 59, Republicans

The question for Republicans in this race is whether to step backward or move forward. For those who want to move forward, Joe Wicker is the best choice.

Wicker, 40, is an Army veteran who owns a home health agency and narrowly lost the Republican primary for this seat in 2012. He has a solid, pro-growth agenda that reflects the core of his party. He is a small-business advocate who wants to cut government regulations and create a stronger business environment. He opposes any new taxes and supports school choice. Wicker wants to make health care costs more transparent by enabling patients to see the cost of services up front. He is open to working with Democrats on reforming the justice system by looking at giving judges more discretion in sentencing nonviolent offenders.

Ronda Storms, 52, was a divisive figure during her time on the Hillsborough County Commission, where she served from 1998 to 2006 before serving a forgettable six years in the Florida Senate. Her penchant for inflaming battles against those she looked upon as different did not serve her constituents or epitomize public service.

Wicker can be expected to be a reliable vote for the House's conservative Republican leadership. His energy and professional demeanor could make him an effective freshman legislator. Local Republican leaders have lined up behind Wicker, an indication he would solidly support the east county communities of Palm River, Brandon and Valrico.

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In the Republican primary for Florida House District 59, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Joe Wicker.

Dianne Hart | District 61, Democrats

The four Democrats running for this seat have an appropriate agenda for Tampa's urban core: Jobs, more affordable housing and better access to health care and transportation. Dianne Hart distinguishes herself in the field for her lifelong advocacy in the community and her ability at the street level to make a difference.

Hart, 63, an East Tampa civic leader, has worked for years to bring better jobs and housing to the district, which includes east Tampa, Riverside Heights, Seminole Heights and Sulphur Springs. She would work with local government to improve mass transit and strive at the state level to increase funding for public schools.

Sharon Carter, 53, a school teacher, and Norman Harris, 41, a Tampa attorney, would both focus on affordable housing and education. Karen Skyers, 45, an attorney who formerly worked as an assistant public defender and as an aide to former Sen. Arthenia Joyner, said she also would work to tackle the root causes of poverty, homelessness and criminal recidivism. Skyers brings policy depth and passion to this shared agenda, and her understanding of the legislative process could raise the district's profile in Tallahassee.

Hart, though, would draw on years of experience and contacts to put a human face on priorities that are too often ignored today in Tallahassee. In the Democratic primary for Florida House District 61, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Dianne Hart.

Susan Valdes | District 62, Democrats

Susan Valdes has earned her share of supporters and critics over 14 years as a member of the Hillsborough County School Board. But she has, on balance, been a strong supporter of her heavily Hispanic district, and her keen attention to her constituents' needs makes her the best choice in this race.

Valdes, 53, promotes a decidedly progressive agenda - fulfilling the Florida Constitution's requirement that education funding be a "paramount duty" of the state; supporting Medicaid expansion with federal funding; improving mass transit and mental health care services; and strengthening environmental protections. She sees a robust role for the state in bettering the every day lives of its residents, and she draws on the hardships that many residents in this West Tampa and northwest Hillsborough County area face in living paycheck-to-paycheck.

Mike Alvarez, 34, is a Marine veteran whose family has century-old ties to the Hispanic community of West Tampa. He generally agrees with Valdes on the issues, citing the need for serious investments in education, job training and apprenticeships, health care and transportation. The difference between the two likely would be their approach to getting things done rather than their voting records. Alvarez, operations director for a family-owned roofing company, is sharp and promises to bring a perspective from small business to Tallahassee. Christopher Carlos Cano, 35, a union organizer, has a broad platform to expand job prospects and educational opportunities.

But Valdes seems the best fit. She mishandled the firing of the former school superintendent in 2015, but Valdes has championed the needs of students across the district who have had difficulty academically. She is attuned to the hurdles that many families face due to language barriers and low incomes. Her experience on the School Board also gives Valdes an appreciation for local control. She is accessible and bullish in pursuing her agenda.

In the Democratic primary for Florida House District 62, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Susan Valdes.

Terry Power | District 64, Republicans

A top priority for first-time candidate Terry Power would be to reform the state's divorce laws to cap legal fees and set fixed schedules for alimony payments. That's a narrow priority stemming from his difficult divorce, but Power also offers a broader platform and a commitment to service that could benefit the district, which includes Northdale, Keystone, Westchase and Oldsmar.

Power, 60, is a certified financial planner who has lived in North Pinellas for 33 years. He says he was an early supporter of President Donald Trump, who inspired him to challenge incumbents. His policies largely echo the party line; he opposes new taxes "as a matter of policy," believes public school funding is adequate and says current gun controls "are more than sufficient." Yet Power is open to considering accepting federal Medicaid expansion money and says he is "disgusted" at what is happening in the Everglades as a result of influential polluters. His small-government outlook is shaped by sensible ideas for making public services more efficient.

Rep. James Grant, 35, of Tampa was first elected to the House in 2010. The attorney has spent much of his time on small-bore issues, and he is not seen as particularly effective. The two-county district includes some of the fastest-growing areas and neighborhoods where rural lifestyles are being threatened by urban sprawl. The district needs a representative who is willing to put in the effort to be visible and address meaningful issues.

In the Republican primary for Florida House District 64, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Terry Power.

Nick DiCeglie | District 66, Republicans

Two impressive, first-time Republican candidates are competing to succeed term-limited Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole. Nick DiCeglie has the broader combination of civic involvement and business experience.

DiCeglie, 44, owns a garbage hauling company that serves commercial and residential properties in unincorporated Pinellas County. He is a previous chair of the Clearwater Chamber of Commerce, and for four years he has chaired the Pinellas Republican Party, a post he will leave in December. DiCeglie has a strong grasp of issues affecting small businesses, from taxes to government regulation to workers compensation costs. The Indian Rocks Beach resident also recognizes the importance of improving workforce or vocational training.

DiCeglie opposes additional gun controls and prefers focusing on increasing security at schools. He supports criminal justice reforms to give judges more discretion and to reduce the costs to prosecute and imprison those convicted of some nonviolent crimes. He opposes accepting Medicaid expansion money and making texting while driving a primary offense.

Berny Jacques, 31, is development director for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay and previously spent four years as an assistant state attorney. The Seminole resident opposes giving judges more discretion and supports making texting while driving a primary offense. He also would make workforce education and job creation a priority.

This district stretches from Indian Shores to Clearwater and includes Seminole and part of Largo. In the Republican primary for Florida House District 66, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Nick DiCeglie.

Dawn Douglas | District 67, Democrats

Two Democrats are running in this competitive district that includes most of Clearwater and Largo. Dawn Douglas, a reading teacher at Oak Grove Middle School, is the best prepared.

Douglas, 66, is a first-time candidate who has chaired the government relations committee for the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association and has a basic understanding of state issues. She is critical of the Republican-led Legislature's attacks on teacher unions and spending on charter schools, and she says there is too much emphasis on standardized tests.

Douglas supports investing in bus rapid transit and opposes toll roads. She also supports a ban on assault weapons and closing the gun-show loophole on background checks for gun buyers, accepting Medicaid expansion money and making texting while driving a primary offense.

Thomas D. Ryan, 65, works for an ice cream mix provider and lost in the 2014 Democratic primary for this seat. He also supports increased spending on public education and accepting Medicaid expansion money, but he does not have a solid grasp of many state issues.

In the Democratic primary for Florida House District 67, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Dawn Douglas.

Ray Blacklidge | District 69, Republicans

Republicans in this district have two credible candidates to succeed incumbent Republican Rep. Kathleen Peters of Treasure Island. The edge goes to insurance executive Ray Blacklidge, who has more experience inside and outside government.

Blacklidge, 58, is the general counsel and part owner of a Pinellas Park property insurance company established after the 2005 hurricane season. The Madeira Beach resident moved to Florida more than two decades ago from West Chicago, where he was elected to the local school board and city council. He has a thorough understanding of property insurance and calls for reforming the much-abused assignment of benefits.

Blacklidge supports the repeal of no-fault auto insurance, making texting while driving a primary offense and home rule that would let local governments regulate short-term rentals. He opposes accepting Medicaid expansion money, banning assault weapons, and criminal justice reforms that would give judges more discretion.

Jeremy Bailie, 27, graduated from Stetson University law school three years ago and is a civil litigator for a St. Petersburg firm. The Gulfport resident supports closing the gun-show loophole that enables buyers to avoid background checks, repealing no-fault auto insurance and reforming criminal justice sentencing. He wants to expand access to health care but opposes accepting Medicaid expansion money. Bailie is enthusiastic, but vague on some policy issues.

This district covers south Pinellas beaches, South Pasadena, Gulfport and northwest St. Petersburg. In the Republican primary for Florida House District 69, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Ray Blacklidge.

Wengay Newton | District 70, open primary

In his first term in the Florida House, Wengay Newton made positive contributions and was not bashful about speaking up. The St. Petersburg Democrat remains the candidate with the best grasp of the needs of this district that is centered in St. Petersburg and includes portions of Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota counties. This primary is open to all voters because all candidates for this district are registered with one political party.

Rather than fight the consolidation of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg with the main USF campus in Tampa that was destined to be approved this spring, Newton wisely negotiated with Republicans for money to increase outreach efforts to minority students. He helped get more money for a program to coach parents of preschoolers. He also joined other black lawmakers in persuading the Legislature to approve a slavery memorial at the Capitol and to replace a Confederate statue in the U.S. Capitol with one for civil rights leader and educator Mary McLeod Bethune.

Vito Sheeley, 45, works for Habitat for Humanity and previously worked on voter outreach efforts for various elected officials in Tampa Bay. He opposed the USFSP consolidation and supports criminal justice reforms, increased education spending and legalizing recreational marijuana so it can be taxed to raise money for schools.

Keisha Bell, 44, is a St. Petersburg lawyer who supports accepting Medicaid expansion money, pursuing criminal justice reforms and closing the gun-show loophole on background checks for gun buyers. She criticizes lawmakers for failing to pass tougher regulations against sexual harassment.

Newton, 54, is a former St. Petersburg City Council member who knows his district well and is passionate about expanding early childhood programs, improving education and fighting poverty. In the open primary for House District 70, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Wengay Newton.