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SD 19 candidates talk about early education and getting bills passed in a GOP Legislature

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It’s always challenging for any Democrat to get a bill they sponsored passed in the Florida Legislature. And with Republicans continuing to dominate the House and Senate, it’s sometimes difficult to hear them boast about what they’ll accomplish in Tallahassee on the campaign trail, when the reality is much starker.

At Tuesday night’s Senate District 19 forum focusing on early childhood education at the Robert W. Saunders Library in Tampa, the three men and one woman looking to succeed Arthenia Joyner talked about the changes they say are necessary in a state that ranks 37th in per-pupil spending in the nation and 44th in providing health insurance for children.

Ed Narain, who has been successful in getting bills passed in his one and only term as a state representative, said the key to getting crossover support is to emphasize “ROI”(return on investment).

“The fact of the matter is that $1 invested in early education results in $8 coming back,” adding that it’s a low estimate. “So being able to talk and speak the language of business to a lot of these ‘business folks’ (he said using the his fingers on both hands in the universal quote sign) that are representing us in Tallahassee is important.”

Outgoing State House District 70 Representative Darryl Rouson acknowledged the reality of being in a body (the Florida House) with just 39 Democrats versus 81 Republicans.

“It’s about children, and they have children too,” he said of his Republican brethren. “This is where relationships come into play. And when you have worked with the leaders of the Senate, some of them having served in the House, before you go to the Senate, it counts for something. So I will maintain it’s not just advocacy, but effectiveness in working towards getting this type of legislation passed.”

Betty Reed represented District 59 in Tampa for eight years (2006-2014), and said she learned to work well with both Republicans and Democrats during her tenure. “The legislation I brought home was very meaningful to children, to families, to everyone,” she said, mentioning several times during the forum about her Black Infant Mortality bill  (sponsored in the Senate by Joyner) that passed in her first session in the House in 2007. That bill provided a one-time grant of $1 million to research why black infants in Florida died at a rate four times greater than white infants.

As a first-time candidate, St. Petersburg-based civil justice attorney Augie Ribeiro doesn’t have a record in Tallahassee to reference, so he focused on how poorly Florida rates when it comes to voluntary pre-K programs, behind red states like Alabama and Georgia. “We could use those other states as our role models,” he said, as well as making the return-on-investment argument by quoting business officials like former Proctor and Gamble  CEO John Popper who advocate for early childhood education. Ribeiro says UPK is “the seminal issue in our country.”

“This is as important as any terrorist threat, if we do not address this issue now,” Ribeiro said about a weak universal voluntary pre-kindergarten program. “We are facing threats not only to our country’s future for our kids, but also that our own military needs heightened awareness.”

Tampa Bay Times editor and columnist Ernest Hooper asked the questions at the forum, which was organized by the Children’s Movement of Florida. He cited the fact that employees at child care centers make less per hour than those working at fast food restaurants, and asked what could be done to increase pay scales to attract and retain better teachers.

Ribeiro said that the Legislature needs to be convinced the money they’re spending on “corporate welfare in trying to woo businesses into the state that bring in low-paying jobs” should be shifted and spent on early childhood education.

Reed said she supports raising the living wage to $15 an hour, and said she wouldn’t be afraid to argue that to Gov. Rick Scott. “Every once in awhile, he moves just like you ask him to,” though other Democrats might wonder about that. “I know I can get results. Send me to Tallahassee. I know we can get it done,” a line she repeated like a mantra throughout the evening.

Rouson reiterated his call to tax the internet sales of goods and use that income to as a direct funding source for early childhood education.

With less than a week to go before the Aug. 30 primary, it’s anyone’s guess who will come out on top.

Court-imposed redistricting of all 40 Senate seats inspired some Democrats to contemplate winning a number of seats this year. The Republicans hold a 26-14 lead at the moment, but Narain dared to think boldly of the Democrats catching up within the next few years.

“We could see some very dramatic changes,” he optimistically mused when asked about how much the Democrats could get done in the state Capitol. “The hope is that the Democratic Party picks up seats in the Senate, and we’re able by 2020, even those numbers up to 20-20, which dramatically changes a lot of the bad legislation that we would see from the House to the Senate,” he said. “In other words, we’re going to see a lot more bargaining taking place.”

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at

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