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. There are four open Florida House seats in Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties, as well as some other competitive races.
There are two first-time candidates in this race for an open seat. Republican Mike Beltran's nuanced views on state issues and outreach to voters make him the better fit for this conservative district, which includes FishHawk, Riverview and Sun City Center.
Beltran, 34, is a Harvard Law School graduate who operates his own general litigation firm. While he opposes new taxes and is solidly conservative, he supports more local control of funding for public schools and redirecting more resources into the classroom. Beltran opposes new gun restrictions, but he supports red-flag legislation to remove weapons from individuals who pose a public safety threat. He also supports a ban on oil drilling in Florida's coastal waters and reforming the criminal sentencing laws to give judges greater discretion in handling some nonviolent offenses. Beltran opposes expanding gambling in Florida.
Debbie Katt, a 54-year-old software engineer, supports higher teacher salaries and education funding, expanding Medicaid and criminal justice reforms. But the Democrat is unclear about how she would adjust the state budget to make education a higher priority. She is right that members of both political parties need to find more common ground on core state concerns.
Beltran should drop the rhetoric about "sanctuary cities," which don't exist in Florida. He should focus on more on his sensible suggestions for addressing bread-and-butter issues, such as investing in transportation.
For Florida House District 57, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Mike Beltran.
Lawrence McClure won this seat in a special election in December. A small business owner with no previous political experience, he has learned quickly and become a good fit for this diverse district.
McClure, 31, is a fiscal and social conservative who opposes expanding Medicaid and new gun restrictions. But the Republican has nuanced views on most major issues. McClure wants to explore ways to make health care more accessible and affordable, and he wants the Legislature to examine whether the newly passed school safety law is as effective as it should be to protect children. He also seems open to reforming the state's criminal justice laws to give minor, nonviolent offenders a path toward rehabilitation.
Phil Hornback, 52, is a Ruskin real estate broker who has worked as a brick layer and middle school science teacher. The Democrat wants to increase funding for public education, raise teacher pay and curb Tallahassee's assault on local control. Hornback supports expanding Medicaid, expanded background checks on gun purchases and new spending on infrastructure.
Hornback said he entered this race after a congressional bid "did not gain a lot of traction." McClure seems committed to this seat. Both understand agriculture, but McClure has a sharper interest in state policy. He is attuned to the district, which stretches from Plant City to Temple Terrace, and he is aware of the challenges as it evolves from its farming roots into a more urbanized area.
For Florida House District 58, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Lawrence McClure.
Both candidates in this race are young, likeable military veterans who own businesses. But the similarities end there. Adam Hattersley has a grasp of the challenges facing this state that Joe Wicker doesn't.
Hattersley, a 40-year-old Democrat and former Navy submarine officer, believes that increasing funding for education is the first step in improving the state's economy. He supports more money for teacher pay, and for school repairs and maintenance. He would expand Medicaid and calls for the state to work more closely with local communities on improving transportation. He also rightly calls out the Legislature for preempting local control and forcing unfunded mandates on local governments. He is sensible and solutions-oriented, and he recognizes that Republicans also want to improve education and health care for working families.
Wicker, 40, is an Army veteran who owns a home health agency. The Republican is a small-government conservative who wants to cut regulations. He has some sensible proposals, such as calling for health costs to be more transparent.
But Wicker is also vague on many key policies. He also can be flip; Wicker insists "there is no such thing" as a gun show loophole. He believes cutting administrators' pay would fill a funding gap in education. And he would install metal detectors outside school buildings because "crazy people don't follow the law."
Hattersley has a much more thoughtful, well-rounded view of what residents in Brandon, Valrico, Bloomingdale and Palm River need from their state lawmakers in Tallahassee.
For Florida House District 59, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Adam Hattersley.
Debra Bellanti is a sharp, fresh voice who could energize representation of this district in Tallahassee. This urbanized, growing area needs a representative who will focus on schools, the environment and other serious issues.
Bellanti, a 49-year-old Democrat and small business owner, has lived in Tampa for 26 years, and she has been active with area hospitals and charities. Her business and civic work give her a solid grasp of the district's priorities. Bellanti supports expanding Medicaid, increased funding for mental health services in schools and greater local control on a range of issues, from transportation to school security. She believes the Legislature should have held a special session to address funding shortfalls in public schools. She rightly sees environmental protection as a bipartisan priority for this coastal district.
Rep. Jackie Toledo, a 42-year-old engineer, has virtually nothing worthwhile to show for her two years in office. The Republican either is noncommittal or offers platitudes about major issues facing the district and the state. She occupied herself this year sponsoring a bill Gov. Rick Scott signed into law that provides permanent state funding for so-called "pregnancy support centers," largely unregulated operations that critics contend are sham health clinics used to shame and mislead women into carrying their unplanned pregnancies to term.
Bellanti is open, confident and accessible, and she is determined to work on bread-and-butter issues that improve people's lives. This district, which includes the crowded and growing areas of south Tampa and the county's south shore, needs an engaged representative who would push a practical agenda.
For Florida House District 60, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Debra Bellanti.
This district surrounding the University of South Florida in north Tampa is undergoing rapid change, and its diversity demands a moderate style of politics. Fentrice Driskell is a fresh, dynamic voice whose focus on education, jobs and the state's natural resources is the right agenda for this growing community, which includes the USF area, New Tampa, Lake Magdalene and parts of Carrollwood.
Driskell, a 39-year-old Democrat and Tampa attorney, has a life story as compelling as her priorities. Born and raised in Polk County, she graduated from Harvard University and Georgetown University Law Center, clerking for a Florida federal judge before joining Carlton Fields in Tampa, where she practices business litigation.
Driskell wants to increase teacher salaries and redirect more resources to public education. She supports expanding Medicaid and creating new public-private partnerships to build more affordable housing. She believes Florida needs to diversify its jobs base to become more competitive. Driskell also supports funding drug treatment, mental health care and job training services to help get minor, nonviolent offenders out of the prison pipeline.
Republican Rep. Shawn Harrison is a 53-year-old attorney who has held the seat on-and-off since 2010 and who formerly served on the Tampa City Council. Harrison, a USF graduate, has long been a friend of the university and a moderate, pragmatic voice willing to put the district's interests ahead of political partisanship. Harrison broke ranks with most House Republicans to support a Senate plan to expand Medicaid, and he has long supported allowing cities such as Tampa to hold their own transit referendums. He is liked by local officials and helpful in getting the bay area's priorities acted upon in Tallahassee.
Driskell, though, has a more relevant agenda. She understands the urgency to address education and health care. Her charitable work on behalf of schools in under-privileged areas makes her sensitive to the real-life needs in this community, and of what comes with providing better opportunities.
For Florida House District 63, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Fentrice Driskell.
This race leaves voters with two weak choices — an incumbent on cruise control who has the wrong priorities and a first-time candidate with no money, political experience or public profile. At least Jessica Harrington has energy and a reasonable agenda.
Harrington, a 34-year-old Democrat, is a middle-school civics teacher who lives in Odessa. Her top priority is to increase funding for public education, a theme Democrats and some Republicans are hammering home in legislative races across the bay area this year in the wake of reports of low teacher pay, staff turnover and deteriorating schools. She supports expanding Medicaid, stronger gun safety laws and legislation that specifically holds state lawmakers accountable for sexual harassment and misconduct.
Republican Rep. James Grant, 36, was first elected to the House in 2010. The Tampa attorney has spent much of his time on small-bore issues, and there is no indication he is willing to take on larger challenges facing the district, much less the state. The residents in this district, which includes parts of Clearwater and Oldsmar in Pinellas, and Northdale and Citrus Park in Hillsborough, deserve an engaged representative who understands the needs of a growing, congested area. Harrington promises to be a better listener, more accessible and a stronger advocate for ethics and transparency in Tallahassee.
For Florida House District 64, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Jessica Harrington.
Chris Sprowls is in line to become House speaker in two years, which will be a huge benefit to Tampa Bay. The Palm Harbor Republican already is involved in most key issues, and he should temper some of the Republican leadership's attacks on home rule and public education.
Sprowls, 34, is a lawyer who has worked on issues ranging from requiring more transparency in health care prices to criminal justice reforms. He led the effort this year to merge the University of South Florida St. Petersburg into the main USF campus, and he built support by adding requirements to help maintain access for local students to USFSP and to encourage diversity.
A former assistant state attorney, Sprowls supports the stand your ground law. He continues to oppose Medicaid expansion and spending public money on professional sports stadiums. He supports a regional bus rapid transit system for Tampa Bay, and he wants to focus on workforce development and creating more industry certifications and technical training for today's workforce.
Sally Laufer, 65, is a retired Palm Harbor nurse and a first-time candidate. She supports Medicaid expansion, stronger gun control laws and a ban on fracking. The Democrat notes lawmakers have diverted money intended for environmental land purchases to other issues, and she wants to hold charter schools more accountable.
This North Pinellas district generally includes Tarpon Springs, Palm Harbor and Dunedin. For Florida House District 65, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Chris Sprowls.
Nick DiCeglie won a hard-fought Republican primary and has the business and political experience to make an immediate impact for this district, which stretches from Indian Shores to Clearwater and includes Seminole and part of Largo.
DiCeglie, 44, owns a garbage hauling company that serves commercial and residential properties in unincorporated Pinellas County. He has chaired the Pinellas Republican Party for four years and is a previous chair of the Clearwater Chamber of Commerce. The Indian Rocks Beach resident understands issues affecting small businesses and the importance of improving vocational training.
DiCeglie supports criminal justice reforms to give judges more discretion and to reduce costs to prosecute and imprison nonviolent offenders. He opposes additional gun controls, Medicaid expansion and making texting while driving a primary offense. His priorities include continuing to expand a private market for flood insurance.
Alex Heeren, 31, is a former teacher and now a district technology coordinator for Pinellas County Schools. The Seminole Democrat wants to increase funding for public schools, reduce the emphasis on standardized testing and restore money for affordable housing that has been diverted to other uses. He supports accepting Medicaid expansion money, a ban on assault weapons and increased funding for mental health services and support staff at schools.
Diceglie is best positioned to succeed term-limited Larry Ahern. For Florida House District 66, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Nick DiCeglie.
Chris Latvala quietly has maintained his independent streak. The Clearwater Republican voted with Democrats this spring in unsuccessful efforts to amend the school safety bill to include bans on assault weapons and large magazines. He also has been a stronger supporter of home rule than most of his Republican colleagues. Latvala, who is seeking his third term, remains the best option in the district that covers significant portions of Clearwater and Largo.
Latvala, 36, is a Clearwater consultant and Realtor who plans to keep working to add anti-discrimination protections to state law for LGBT people. He passed legislation to make it easier to preserve social media posts that law enforcement can use to pursue sex crimes, and he will again sponsor legislation to better educate children on how to prevent, recognize and report abuse. He also was a sponsor of legislation that makes it easier to bring in charter schools in areas where traditional public schools are failing.
Latvala has cosponsored legislation to make texting while driving a primary offense and to ban fracking. He also supports criminal justice reforms to give judges more sentencing discretion.
Dawn 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 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.
Latvala has the stronger grasp of more issues, and he is one of the few independent thinkers among House Republicans. For Florida House District 67, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Chris Latvala.
This may be the best opportunity in Tampa Bay for Democrats to gain a House seat. Jennifer Webb has spent the last year visiting every corner of this district, which includes south Pinellas beaches, South Pasadena, Gulfport and northwest St. Petersburg. She is a strong choice to succeed Republican Rep. Kathleen Peters of Treasure Island, who is running for the Pinellas County Commission.
Webb, 40, of Gulfport is a founding partner of a new consulting firm that specializes in business development and community engagement. She is the former director of community partnerships for the University of South Florida, and she spent time learning more about state issues and the district after losing to Peters two years ago. She supports a regional approach to transit and wants the state to invest more in infrastructure that prepares the state for climate change, which she predicts would create jobs. She would steer construction money away from charter schools and toward traditional public schools, and de-emphasize high-stakes testing.
Webb would continue Peters' work on improving mental health programs. She also supports Medicaid expansion, making texting while driving a primary offense and banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
Ray 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.
Webb has a solid grasp of the district and a more moderate approach to state issues. For Florida House District 69, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Jennifer Webb.