In the battle over who will represent voters in Democratic-leaning Pinellas County House District 68, both candidates are targeting the legislative experiences of one man, reports Michael Peltier of the News Service of Florida.
Republican Frank Farkas spent eight years in the state House. He wants to go back and stands behind a record of service that he says should justify his return.
Democrat Dwight Dudley, a political newcomer, is also focusing on Farkas’ record, in particular a couple of votes on pocket book issues that will likely take center stage for the rest of the campaign.
Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district and for the past two elections they have voted for Democrats – Barack Obama in 2008 and Alex Sink in 2010- by a nearly 10 percent margin.
But the region’s history shows Republicans can compete for votes. Portions of the newly drawn district were previously held by Democrat Rick Kriseman and Republican Jeff Brandes. Republicans Dennis Jones of Seminole and Jack Latvala of Clearwater also have represented parts of the overlapping area.
The district encompasses much of St. Petersburg, including the city’s business district as well as its historic downtown. It stretches north along the Bay to include much of Pinellas Park, and Riviera Beach.
Former legislators say voters tend to be politically moderate, and not tremendously tied to either party.
“Voters here tend to vote for the candidate and not the party,” Jones said last week.
Dudley and his family – including eight siblings – relocated from Boston to St. Petersburg in 1959. A graduate of St. Petersburg High School, he went on to earn a law degree from Florida State University. He now practices criminal defense law. His brother, Scott Dudley, is a lobbyist for the Florida League of Cities.
Farkas, a Milwaukee native, has been a Tampa Bay resident since 1972. A chiropractor, he graduated from St. Petersburg Junior College and Eckerd College. He served in the House from 1998 to 2006.
Farkas entered the race in June and has raised $116,459 from a wide range of interests, including the chiropractic industry. Dudley, who filed to run in April, has collected $50,660.
The candidates have separated themselves on several issues. Farkas is anti-abortion, Dudley is a supporter of abortion rights. Farkas is a supporter of using government money and tax breaks to generate economic development while Dudley says past business development efforts have cost taxpayers more than $1.5 billion since the mid 1990s with little to show for it.
Facing off last week at a Suncoast Tiger Bay Club luncheon in St. Petersburg, the two candidates jousted over experience and a controversial issue that has cost Tampa Bay utility customers hundreds of millions of dollars in utility fees.
Lawmakers in 2006 approved a law to allow utilities to charge customers up front for future nuclear reactor construction. Backers said the law would reduce costs in the long run by allowing utilities to save up cash instead of having to pay interest on loans.
Florida Power & Light and Progress Energy Florida, the state’s two largest utilities, are seeking federal approval to construct new nuclear plants. The bill, SB 888, passed both chambers with a single dissenting vote. Farkas was among the plan’s supporters.
Progress has since collected more than $650 million in advance nuclear fees and is requesting an additional $300 million next year. The collections continue despite recent developments that include damage to Progress Energy’s Crystal River Nuclear that may cost the company more than $1.2 billion to fix.
Farkas has defended, but said he regrets, his vote on the issue, saying it came as Florida was taking aggressive steps to develop alternative energy sources.
He points to other votes he took during his tenure, including measures to bolster public school standards and improve teacher quality.
Farkas supported the 10-20-Life law imposing minimum mandatory sentences on gun criminals, the Florida Forever land-buying program, and expanding KidCare to provide subsidized health care to more children.
“I am proud of my record,” he told Tiger Bay attendees.
Dudley also has experience in the legislative arena. He served as a legislative aid and staff analyst in the 1980s before returning to law school. He said last week that he has seen the cozy relationships between lawmakers and lobbyists, a condition he vows to change if elected.
“It seems that the special interest are pushing the average Floridians from the table,” Dudley said. “We aren’t getting any recognition. We aren’t getting what is just and due and fair.”
Despite talk of experience and ethics reform, November’s winner may be the candidate who best addresses the economic concerns of voters in the region.
“Most people I know are looking at their wallets,” said Will Scherer, a St. Petersburg resident having lunch at downtown café last week. “Other issues are kind of secondary at his point.”
“Voters are hoping that whatever happens in November will be positive,” Jones said. “That is the same whether they are Republicans or Democrats.”