Florida's House District 61 seat encompasses much of the urban core of Tampa, and is looking for new representation with the term-limited retirement of Betty Reed this fall. Three of the four people competing in the heavily Democratic district appeared for an hour Wednesday night at J.J.'s in Ybor City at the Hillsborough County LGBTA Democratic Caucus monthly meeting. Ed Narain was the breakout candidate.
Narain was joined by Sharon Carter, a former vice-chairwoman of the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee, and Tatiana Denson, who ruffled some feathers when she challenged Reed for the seat back in 2012. After fielding a softball query on whether they supported raising the minimum wage (they all did), the candidates were asked what would be the the first law they would introduce in Tallahassee if elected.
While Carter and Denson fumbled before speaking in generalities about education (Carter) and economic development and transportation (Denson), Narain, an area manager for AT&T who recently received his law degree at Stetson University, was poised to respond.
"It's going to be to expand Medicaid," he said, earning a hearty cheer from the audience. "We sat here and watched as Rick Scott basically said, 'Hey, $55 billion of our money. We just gave it away. Just like with the high-speed rail."
Pivoting to public education, Narain mentioned that he is married to a school teacher and that he's never supported vouchers, something he said not every candidate in the race could say. "I will always champion public education."
That appeared to be one of several subtle shots Narain took at the other major contender in the race, Sean Shaw, who did not attend the event. Shaw is the son of retired State Supreme Court Chief Justice Leander Shaw, Jr. He lost a race for a state House seat in Tallahassee in 2008, and his Tally background is something Narain has made an issue of during the campaign.
Last month Charlie Crist surprised some in the party by endorsing Shaw. Narain released a statement at the time saying that Crist had called him personally and that he understood that Crist and Shaw have had a relationship for awhile. But Narain also wrote, "This election is not going to be decided in Mr. Shaw’s Tallahassee neighborhood, nor at his Harbour Island condominium. Nor is this race going to be determined by a statewide ballot like the governor’s race."
Shaw's non-appearance did not go unremarked by Narain, who also referred to Crist's refusal to debate Nan Rich in advance of the August 26 primary. "When people say they don't want to debate, they don't want to show up for debates, because they feel they've got this in the bag? That's a problem." Referring specifically to the governor's race, he said, "I think it's important, if we want to find out who's the best person to get Scott out of here in November, there should be a debate."
CL spoke briefly with Shaw on Thursday afternoon. He said he had a conflict and couldn't appear at Wednesday night's forum. But he expressed surprise at Narain's statement about the Crist endorsement and the remark about Harbour Island.
"I have no idea what he's talking about. I live in Seminole Heights. His reaction to the endorsement was an interesting press release. I do agree with him that the race is going to be decided by the people of Tampa." Shaw said he originally did live in Harbour Island when he moved from Tallahassee, but no longer does. And he said he was proud of his endorsement from former Governor Crist.
Tatiana Denson had her solid moments as well. She stood unabashedly behind her statement about Walmart coming into East Tampa, after an audience member expressed disdain toward the retail giant. "Regardless of how we feel about Walmart or any other business, we need jobs in District 61." After the audience member responded that "we need jobs that pay and provide benefits," alluding to the company's low-wage salaries, Denson didn't back down. "At the end of the day what other companies are coming here to do business? We need some businesses. We can say Walmart doesn't pay the best wages, but I just have a question for everyone: What other businesses are coming into our community to hire people? To employ the residents of District 61?"
Regarding Common Core, Sharon Carter said flatly that she does not support those new standards in Florida. She said that she has many relatives who teach in the Florida public school system. "The common complaint is that the students do not have time to even transition to Common Core, so obviously that means a lot of students will be left behind because of it. And they're still trying to work out the merit pay as far as teacher performance is concerned..but there should be a core standard for students," though she admitted she didn't know what that would actually be.
Denson said she understood the disdain toward standardized tests, but said she wasn't always going to give people the politically correct response. "Let's be realistic. The reality is, it's not that easy to say we just don't want Common Core and it's going to go away." She added, "They [Republicans] are going to tie some type of testing to teachers' standards, merit raises and otherwise."
Another issue where Ed Narain stood out from his two other opponents was on marriage equality — certainly an issue for all Democrats to weigh in on, but especially in front of the LGBTA caucus, whose members have been fighting for years for equal justice in Hillsborough County.
Ybor City businessman and GaYBOR leader Carrie West asked the question, saying, "I want to hear your true feeling" about same-sex marriage.
Tatiana Denson and Sharon Carter both danced around the question before answering. Denson said that she would ask for input from the LGBT community, but believes that legislation supporting same-sex marriage could be passed. It took over two minutes, however, for her to get to that answer.
Carter said she agreed with Denson, telling West that as a black woman she could relate to the gay community's feeling of being outsiders. But she took even longer to say that she respected West's efforts to overturn the state's ban on same-sex marriage.
Narain, after saying he was known for being frank, flatly declared, "Marriage equality is a no-brainer," adding that the Legislature needs to repeal Amendment 2 (which banned same sex marriage in Florida in 2008). He said the most important thing was to extend marital benefits to same-sex partners.
(It should be noted that supporters of Amendment 2 are taking their case to the courts, and not relying on the Legislature nor a constitutional amendment to overturn the ban on marriage equality.)
All four candidates are expected to gather for a debate this coming Saturday in Tampa.