School choice issue provides challenge for Reggie Fullwood in HD 13 special election

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Former state Rep. Reggie Fullwood’s paperwork blunders have presented an opportunity for school-choice advocates, who are backing a challenger to the Jacksonville Democrat in a special primary this Tuesday.

A pair of errors by notaries public kept Fullwood, previously unopposed in House District 13 as of the June qualifying period, from an easy re-election for a third term.

Yet Fullwood’s mistake gave Democrat Johnny Gaffney, a term-limited Jacksonville City Council member an opening.

Now, Fullwood’s re-election is not so certain.

Gaffney has the support of the Florida Federation for Children, a well-funded electioneering communications organization that facilitated the November losses of former state Reps. Karen Castor Dentel, Mark Danish and Carl Zimmermann.

“Reggie Fullwood comes with a high price tag,” says one flyer hitting District 13 mailboxes produced by the Florida Federation for Children, as reported by the News Service of Florida.

“Can we afford him?” the flyer asks.

By launching a special election, the brochure says Fullwood cost taxpayers an unnecessary $557,000, with 90 percent of campaign donations coming from “Tallahassee special interests.” The Florida Elections Commission also fined him nearly $15,000.

In an interview with the Florida Times-Union, Fullwood insists he only owes $3,000.

The Florida Democratic Party is lending a hand, giving Fullwood a donation of $10,000. He also received endorsements from fellow Jacksonville Democrats Sen. Audrey Gibson and Rep. Mia Jones.

House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford called Fullwood a “very important member of the caucus,” adding that he is someone the caucus “can count on.”

Fullwood had taken his case to court this summer, seeking an order declaring him a qualified candidate, which would prevent a special election. A Duval County judge denied the request.

Paperwork errors and fines are issues voters should consider, Gaffney said.

“We should be looking for someone with character,” he told the News Service of Florida.

A solid Democratic seat, District 13 centers in downtown Jacksonville, and has a poverty rate in its primary zip code of around 45 percent. It is 49.9 percent black, 40.8 percent white and 6.2 percent Hispanic. In both 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama carried the district by 67 percent

Fullwood is executive director of the non-profit Metro North Community Development Corporation, Inc. He became the youngest person ever to serve on the Jacksonville City Council in 1999 and served two terms before his election to the House in 2010.

A former University of Florida football player, Gaffney has been on the city council since 2007. He is also a licensed broker and mortgage lender.

Florida Federation for Children Chair John Kirtley contributed $1,000 to Gaffney’s campaign. He believes the main difference between the two Democrats is their positions on tax-credit scholarships, Florida’s de facto voucher program.

District 13 has roughly 1,200 low-income children in the program, Kirtley says; 70 percent of families in the district enrolled in the program are African-American with an average household income of $20,100.

“Despite this fact, Rep. Fullwood opposes the program,” Kirtley told the News Service in an email. “Further, he is backed by the teacher’s union, which has filed a lawsuit asking the courts to shut down the scholarship program. Not only would this act evict the 1,200 scholarship children in his district from their schools, it would force the closure of several schools serving low-income children. Dr. Gaffney supports parental choice for low-income families and supports the tax-credit scholarship program specifically. He also opposes the union lawsuit. The contrast between the two candidates is stark in this policy area.”

Gaffney said he supports school choice, but had no part in the flyers criticizing Fullwood.

“I was just told I have some good friends who are very interested in this race,” he said.

Turnout for Tuesday’s election is expected to be low. The winner faces Jacksonville Republican Lawrence Jefferson in the general election set for Feb. 17.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.