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Eleven things I think I think about the Tampa Bay Times’ endorsements in state House races

in Peter by

Let’s put aside for a moment the argument about whether newspaper endorsements matter much in modern campaigns.

Even if not a single likely voter was swayed by the opinions of editorial boards, the endorsements still matter because they matter to the candidates themselves. That’s why you see even the most Republican of candidates — with their national standard-bearer whipping his supporters into a frenzy against the media — touting the support of their local newspaper.

The Tampa Bay Times, the state’s largest newspaper, has weighed in with its recommendations in a dozen state House races and, by and large, the Times’ endorsements actually say a lot about the individual campaigns. Of course, this does not mean I agree with all of the Times’ recommendations or that the candidate it recommends even has a chance of winning.

So here are 11 things I think I think the Times endorsements say about Tampa Bay’s state House races.

In House District 35, Tim Nickens and Co. recommend Democrat Ramon Gutierrez over Republican Blaise Ingoglia, writing that “Ingoglia has an inherent conflict and no interest in building consensus across party lines.”

The Times gives Gutierrez, whom the newspaper admits is a long shot credit for supporting Medicaid expansion. That issue is a bright shining dividing line for the Times editorial board. Political party seems to matter less to the Times — half of its endorsements are of Republicans — than where a candidate stands on this paramount issue.

Still, in this case, the recommendation of Gutierrez is probably a waste of time, politically. Ingoglia is the de facto mayor of Hernando County and will win in a walk.

It comes as no surprise that the Times recommends Democrat Amanda Murphy over political newcomer Amber Mariano, but the 20-year-old University of Central Florida student can take some comfort in the kind words the newspaper writes about her, saying she is “passionate about public policy” and has a “bright future.”

The recommendation of Republican Dan Raulerson in House District 58 is also no surprise because Jose Vazquez Figueroa is not a credible candidate. Still, the conservative Raulerson earns high praise from the Times, which says that he “understands the legislative process and the duty that comes with public service. He has shown a commitment to his community for years, and he brings a seriousness that this post requires.” Look for that line to make it on a mailer soon.

OK, so, yes, the Times is recommending Democrat Rena Frazier in HD 59. And, yes, it is dismissive of Republican Ross Spano — he “has not made a mark in Tallahassee” — but this is a briefer write-up than to be expected. Frazier is receiving a lot of support from both national and state progressive organizations, a fact that should impress the liberal Times editorial board. And while the ed board is kind to Frazier, describing her as poised and thoughtful, this is not a go-to-war endorsement.

The brevity of this endorsement speaks to the state of this race in general. Democrats have really wanted to get behind Frazier, but she has not caught fire. Maybe that’s because Spano is a likable pol seen as hard to beat. Maybe it’s because HD 59 is one of those legislative districts even those involved in the political process isn’t exactly sure where it is. Or maybe Frazier just hasn’t made a compelling enough of a case to displace Spano. Whatever the reason, Frazier needed a better argument for her candidacy.

What Frazier needed the Times to write about Spano was kind of what it writes about Republican Jackie Toledo, who is running in Tampa’s House District 60. The Times says she ran a “clueless” campaign last year for Tampa City Council, and she has not learned from that bad experience or grown as a candidate. This is the same criticism I’ve had of Toledo, who, as the Times notes, is uncomfortable with public scrutiny.

Toledo is a lot smarter than her two campaigns have portrayed her, but she seems to be so shellshocked in front of the media and the public that we just don’t know. It’s likely she wins this seat because she has the Florida GOP’s resources behind her, whereas Democrat David Singer is not getting any help from Tallahassee. That’s too bad, because Singer is a beyond-qualified candidate.

The Times’ recommendation of Republican Shawn Harrison over Democrat Lisa Montelione is its most sensible endorsement — and probably it’s most surprising. House District 63 is a battleground seat that is usually won by the party that also wins the top of the ballot. For Harrison to hang on to this seat in a presidential cycle, he has to run a near-perfect campaign. Earning the Times endorsement is evidence that he is doing his best to do that.

Harrison is one of the Republicans the Times endorses because, that’s right, he supported Medicaid expansion. Again, where a candidate stands on this issue seems to supersede party with the editorial board.

The Times doesn’t have anything bad to say about Montelione, crediting her for “tireless” constituent work, but its laudatory about Harrison, making the case that “(t) here is no compelling reason to lose his experience or the leverage he brings as part of the majority party. His strong relationships with leaders at the local level also help elevate Tampa’s interests in Tallahassee.”

For the record, Harrison has now won the endorsements of the Times, the Democratic-leaning La Gaceta, and the Florida Sentinel, a newspaper which serves predominantly African-American neighborhoods.

It should not matter what Chris Sprowls‘ thinks about any policies; he’s in line to become Speaker of the House in four years — Pinellas’ first legislative leader since Peter Wallace led the House — and that is good enough reason for him to win the Times’ endorsement — and re-election.

It’s kind of a shame the soft-spoken Larry Ahern does not get as much press as other members of the Tampa Bay legislative delegation. He is a devout conservative, but not in that holier-than-thou sort of way which turns off as many voters as it attracts. He’s simply a man of principle who knows where he stands on issues, even when he’s in the minority, where Ahern often finds himself.

In a different world, the race for House District 66 would be a donnybrook as both candidates — Ahern and special education teacher Lorena Grizzle — are as opposite as they come. I had the pleasure of moderating a candidate forum where both participated, and it was clear from their first answers that they were on opposite ends of the horseshoe. Unfortunately, this race hasn’t received a lot of attention. That’s too bad as both Ahern and Grizzle can forcefully articulate their political philosophies.

Even if Chris Latvala was not maturing into a respected public servant — which he is — it’s a no-brainer that the Times endorsed his candidacy. Latvala’s opponent — carpetbagger David Vogel — is not a credible candidate. The Times acknowledges this in its endorsement, while also crediting Latvala with a bright future as he “poised to take on bigger issues.”

Republican Joseph Bensmihen is a very nice man with a powerful personal story, but, as the Times captures in its endorsement of his opponent, Democrat Ben Diamond, he has no connection to the district and is not a viable alternative.

BUT, even if Bensmihen were Commodore of the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, the Times would have never not endorsed Diamond, which, as it is for many Democrats, views the St. Petersburg lawyer as one of its brightest rising stars.

If there was one challenger who needed the Tampa Bay Times endorsement, it was Democrat Jennifer Webb, who is running against Republican Kathleen Peters. Unfortunately for Webb, the Treasure Island Republican has too strong a record for the Times — and voters of House District 69 — to make a case for unseating her. This line from the recommendation — “Kathleen Peters has taken on difficult issues and made a substantial difference” — will make its way into mailers and TV ads as Peters makes her closing argument for another term.

The Times really had no choice but to endorse Wengay Newton in House District 70, but not without sending a warning shot across the bow:

“Newton will have to adjust his style in the Legislature after eight years as a member of the St. Petersburg City Council, where he often frustrated colleagues with his lengthy discussions and questions.”

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Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.

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