Pinellas House candidates stick to party lines during 3-hour long forum

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St. Petersburg College hosted the largest local candidate forum of this election Thursday night. A total of 17 candidates in legislative races and Pinellas County Commission took the stage in three shifts to answer questions from panelists, including the Tampa Bay Times political editor Adam Smith and WTSP investigative reporter Noah Pransky. They weren’t messing around.

First up in the three-hour event were candidates for House Districts 65, 66 and 67.

In the District 65 corner, Republican Chris Sprowls is challenging incumbent Karl Zimmerman. That race got heated this week after Zimmerman sent out a campaign mailer accusing Sprowls of being inexperienced and lacking work history. The mailer says that Sprowls has worked only four and a half years in his life and he doesn’t make enough money. Sprowls, who is only 30, took offense.

“This was personal. This mentioned my wife, this mentioned my family,” Sprowls said. “Representative Zimmerman says he didn’t want to mention her. He mentions the bills as far as innuendo to say that we can’t afford our bills, but goes ahead and neglects to mention that my wife, surprisingly, she works for a living.”

Zimmerman said he doesn’t regret the mailer because even though Sprowls claims it’s chock full of lies, it’s all true.

“I was talking about his inexperience in life. He hasn’t raised a child. I talked about his $332,000 mortgage and he makes $55,000 – I just feel at his age to take on a mortgage [like that] I just feel that at his age to take on a $332,000 mortgage with a $146,000 student loan debt, I think that’s not a very good way to start,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman is a veteran high school educator who teaches journalism and mass media. Sprowls is a prosecutor focusing on gang crime.

One of the many issues dividing Democrats and Republicans in both the House and the Senate is school choice. Republicans tend to favor expanding programs like school vouchers and charter schools. Sprowls said those programs are necessary to ensure that parents and students have choices.

“We go to the grocery store, we have 100 different kids of milk to choose from. We have 2 percent milk, regular milk, milk for people who don’t drink milk, strawberry milk – we should have options,” Sprowls said.

But Democrats, including Zimmerman, want the money that is spent on charter schools and vouchers to stay within public schools.

“It’s corporate tax that is supposed to be paid to the state, it’s being diverted into a corporate scholarship, but those students that we do not meet the needs of – I have plans for that once the Supreme Court finds it unconstitutional,” Zimmerman said.

Among the most contentious of issues in most state races is whether the state should accept federal funding for Medicaid expansion. Most GOP lawmakers oppose accepting $51 billion in federal funds to make the safety net available to about 1 million low income Floridians, while Democrats urge state GOP leaders to take the money.

The issue is personal for House District 66 challenger Lorena Grizzle. Her sister would have benefited from Medicaid expansion.

“She became ill and was afraid to go to the hospital because she didn’t want to have a big bill and she died – it was a simple infection that could have been cured,” Grizzle said.

Expanding Medicaid is a provision in the Affordable Care Act that originally required states to use federal funds to provide the health care safety net to more people. Because of that provision, only those making between 100 percent and 400 percent of the federal poverty level qualify for subsidies for private insurance.

But because a Supreme Court ruling allowed states to choose whether they opt in or out, many Republican-controlled states like Florida turned down the money, leaving poor people without access to subsidies or Medicaid. Their reason: they say they don’t believe the federal government can afford to keep providing the money to the states.

“If you would believe that the federal government can continue to pay for it forever, I think you’re mistaken,” said Republican incumbent Larry Ahern, prompting one member of the audience to shout, “People are dying!”

Candidates were also asked about some local issues. The Greenlight Pinellas transit initiative that would raise sales tax 1 percent to fund increased bus service and passenger rail has become a partisan issue. Grizzle is for it; Ahern against.

In the district 67 race between Republican Chris Latvala and Democrat Stephen Sarnoff, Latvala opposes it while Sarnoff said he’ll vote in favor of it. In the district 65 battle, both Zimmerman and Sprowls are opposed.

Another hot local topic is Duke Energy. The Florida Public Service Commission per legislation passed in Tallahassee has allowed the utility to collect advanced nuclear cost recovery fees amounting to $3.2 billion – all for two projects that were cancelled. Throughout this election cycle, local Republicans have slowly been joining those who are upset about the policy.

“I think it’s interesting that a lot of people have made a conversion at the last minute,” Grizzle said. “I don’t know how you can stand in front of a barbeque place and say that you’re going to stop the energy companies from milking consumers when you’ve got checks in your back pocket.”

She’s referring to claims made by numerous Democrats against Republican opponents that Duke Energy has been pumping money into their campaigns. It’s difficult to quantify though because Duke and other utility companies have given large sums of money to some political committees. Those committees then make campaign contributions to candidates and sometimes purchase advertising.

Candidates were also asked about using state funds to build stadiums. That could be a hot topic in St. Pete where two sports teams stand to benefit. The Tampa Bay Rays want a new stadium and the team is negotiations with the city to step outside its contract to look at stadium sites elsewhere. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Rowdies are playing in a rundown baseball stadium. Al Lang Field’s waterfront prestige could make it prime real estate to rehab.

“If it will help grow our economy and provide some jobs, I do appreciate the economic impact that they have,” Ahern said.

Some questions at the forum went unanswered – though it wasn’t hard to read between the lines. Latvala and Sarnoff were asked about whether Attorney General Pam Bondi should continue to challenge court cases that favor same sex marriage.

“It does not keep me up at night,” Latvala said. “My life would be no different than it is today.”

Asked to clarify, Latvala said he supports upholding Florida’s constitutional ban on same sex marriage “ because the voters approved it.”

His opponent supports marriage equality.

“We don’t have such hard lines that we allow for a lot of debate, but at the end of the day you believe in doing the right thing for everybody,” Sarnoff said.

In response to a question, Sarnoff said he embraced the party’s platform.

“I’m proud of it,” he said.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email