As Sharon Light, president of a Duval County Republican women’s club, started a candidates’ forum Thursday in the Senate District 4 race, she quickly set a ground rule: Keep it positive.
But positive has been an exception in the high-stakes GOP primary between former state Rep. Aaron Bean and Rep. Mike Weinstein, reports Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida. Outside groups have spent weeks — and by one estimate, as much as $2.5 million — bombarding voters in Duval and Nassau counties with nasty television ads, mail pieces and phone calls aimed at tearing down one candidate or the other.
“It’s a power struggle out of Tallahassee,” Weinstein said before speaking to the Republican Women’s Club of Duval Federated during the lunchtime forum. “They’ve taken over the campaign. Ninety percent of the messages that are out there are driven by outsiders.”
Bean said the outside involvement shows the level of statewide interest in the race, which is part of a broader fight about who will become Senate president in 2016. Bean backs Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, for the presidency, while Weinstein is allied with Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and groups on both sides have piled into the District 4 campaign.
Bean, of Fernandina Beach, said he has not personally run any negative ads in the campaign.
“My nature is not combative,” he said. “My nature is to tell a story, to give people hope and opportunity.”
Both candidates said they expect the results of Tuesday’s primary to be close. District 4 includes Nassau County and a large, almost horseshoe-shaped area of Duval that wraps around the middle of Jacksonville.
The winner of Tuesday’s primary will face Democrat Nancy Soderberg, a former ambassador and Clinton administration official, in the November general election. Though the district’s boundaries have been redrawn this year, the area has been a Republican legislative stronghold for the past two decades.
Weinstein and Bean both have long political histories in Northeast Florida. Weinstein, who lives in Jacksonville, served as a top aide to former State Attorney and Jacksonville Mayor Ed Austin and has served in the House since 2008. Bean was a House member from 2000 to 2008, after an earlier stint as Fernandina Beach mayor.
During Thursday’s forum, they briefly outlined their priorities, such as improving the education system. Weinstein said he objects to what he considers the state using a standardized system to dictate how local schools are run.
“We’ve got to get to a point where we look at things differently,” Weinstein said.
Bean, meanwhile, pitched a plan to better scrutinize how state tax dollars are spent. He said he wants to “sunset” all of the appropriations in the budget, effectively forcing built-in budget items to be reviewed.
“We’ve got legislators 20 to 30 years ago that made appropriations that are still our priorities today,” Bean told the Republican women’s group. “I think that’s wrong.”
Term-limited Sen. Steve Wise, R-Jacksonville, introduced Bean during the forum. Wise said his support stems, at least in part, from Bean’s experience in the House as chairman of the committee that wrote the health budget.
“I like both of them,” Wise said before the event. “The only reason that I believe Aaron is the guy is that he was chairman of health appropriations. It’s a big deal. It’s so complex that most people don’t even want to get on the committee.”
Former Jacksonville City Council President Ginger Soud introduced Weinstein and touted his experience in economic-development efforts, such as helping bring the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars and a Super Bowl to the city. Soud also said Weinstein had been an early supporter of Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi.
But the barrage of attacks on the candidates is receiving much of the attention in the race. Weinstein said he thinks outside groups are spending about $2 million against him and about $500,000 to support him.
For instance, The Florida Times-Union reported Thursday on a new ad attacking Weinstein for his involvement in a failed deal to redevelop an old shipyard in Jacksonville.
A group called the Liberty Foundation of Florida paid for the ad, which has sinister overtones about Weinstein’s involvement in the deal. That group has received most of its money from another group, the Florida Conservative Majority, which says on its website that it is associated with Negron, incoming Senate President Don Gaetz and Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner.
As another example, a group called Floridians for Ethics and Truth in Politics has paid for an attack ad that tries to portray Bean as soft on illegal aliens. That group has received a large part of its money from another group called Investing in Florida’s Future, which says on its website that it is associated with Weinstein.
Bean enjoyed the support of the Republican women’s group Thursday, easily winning a straw poll. But it’s unclear how representative that group is of the broader district.
Light, the group’s president, said her members didn’t want to hear the candidates attack each other — as she made clear in setting the ground rule.
“I was prepared to pull the microphone (if it got negative),” she said after the event.