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Sparks fly as Rod Smith, Keith Perry offer contrasting views at Senate debate

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Candidates for Florida’s newly drawn Senate District 8 outlined their disparate visions for the future to more than 300 students at a debate held at the University of Florida Tuesday evening. But one thing both men had in common was their choice to lead lives that differ dramatically from the lives their fathers led.

“Happiness means doing what you want to do,” said state Rep. Keith Perry, a 57-year-old Republican from Gainesville. “A top-down, centralized form of government that grows bigger by the day means less opportunity for you to go out and do what you want to do,” he said.

The son of a longtime professor at UF, Perry was first elected to the state House in 2010. Sporting a pair of jeans at the debate, he said that, when he was a teenager, rather than attending college, he started a roofing business. He said his business has been in continual operation for nearly 40 years. But he reminded the audience — which he described as by far the largest at any debate “in all my previous elections” — he has a daughter enrolled at UF.

Rod Smith, 66 and a graduate of the UF law school, is the only Democrat since 1998 to represent Gainesville in the state Senate, where he served from 2000 to 2006. Smith ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2006, and in 2010 he was his party’s nominee for lieutenant governor, but that ticket lost. He was chosen as chairman of the Florida Democratic Party that year and served in that role for more than two years. He is a partner at a law firm in Gainesville.

Dressed in a suit and a tie, Smith said his father, a farmer — first in Oklahoma, where Smith was born, and later in Loxahatchee, in western Palm Beach County, where Smith grew up — had a 10th-grade education. “Going to law school? He could not have imagined it,” Smith said.

Formerly the state attorney for Florida’s Eighth Judicial Circuit, Smith said that “the youngest set of voters” in this year’s election will find work in “the kinds of jobs that I can’t imagine today because they are in the laboratories or in the business school or in the school of architecture or engineering right now in somebody’s mind.”

Throughout the debate, moderated by Justin Sayfie — a Fort Lauderdale-based lawyer known for his political-news website, Sayfie Review — Smith and Perry staked out mostly opposing views.

In response to Sayfie’s question about whether guns should be allowed on college campuses, Perry — who voted this year in favor of concealed guns on college campuses — said that “gun-free-zones” entice criminals, who seek unarmed victims. But Smith said allowing guns on campuses is “inviting a tragedy.”

“I think it’s a terrible idea,” he said, to resounding applause. “I oppose guns on campus.” He accused Perry of caving into the demands of the National Rifle Association — an accusation Perry denied.

“To suggest that I did something motivated by the NRA or any other group is factually wrong,” he said.

The debate was sponsored by ACCENT, a student-run speaker’s bureau at UF, and student government’s external affairs agency as part of a civic engagement project leading up to the general election next month, with early voting already underway.

“There’s so much attention being given to the national campaigns — Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton — but a lot of times we forget about the local races that affect students’ lives here in Gainesville just as much as any other campaign,” said Mike Greenberg, a senior in political science and the chairman of ACCENT.

Jason Richards, the chairman of External Affairs, agreed. “A lot of our day-to-day lives, I believe local government, state government, actually has a lot to do with that,” he said. The 22-year-old senior from Tampa is majoring in accounting and registered to vote in Gainesville, but has never been a member of a political party. He says he likes to “sway across party lines” when voting.

The debate became heated over a question about the role of the Legislature in helping college graduates find jobs in Florida.

Smith cited government investment in public schools and infrastructure as inducements to “the best companies in the world and those creative people want to bring jobs into this state.” He mentioned improvements to water supply and transportation access in Alachua, where he lives, as central to attracting a Wal-Mart distribution center, Sysco, and Dollar General.

“During the recent recession, thousands of people in our community had good-paying jobs with good benefits because we understood that government has a role to play,” he said.

By contrast, Perry said Florida’s trial attorneys scare industry away from Florida. “We are losing them because we have one of the most litigious states in the nation,” he said, and he complained about the cost of workman’s compensation insurance. “This is a very lucrative business for people like my opponent,” he said.

Smith — who has often represented unions — described Florida’s workman’s compensation system as fair. “We have to make sure that we never sell out the safety of the public, that we never sell out safe working conditions and that we never sell out the worker in order to attract companies in here who believe that they can do as they want, and there’s no consequence,” he said.

The candidates also differed in their answers to a graduate student’s question over the proliferation on college campuses of “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and “pronoun specificity.”

“I believe that it plays a very important role; it ought to be a consideration, but it should not be the predominate, it should not be the sole factor or factors in the decision that we make,” Smith said.

Perry did not equivocate. “I think it’s dangerous,” he said. “When the government controls your speech, it’s not a direction we want to go as a people; we don’t want to go there as a country.”

In a question about what Sayfie described as Florida’s “undocumented population,” Perry said reading a book titled “Enrique’s Journey” opened his eyes to the challenges that women and children from Latin America endure on their journey to the United States. “That’s a tragedy, and we should not be encouraging that kind of travel,” he said, urging enforcement of existing laws.

Smith said immigration is a matter for Congress to address, adding, “We are a nation of immigrants.“

“In Florida and nationwide, we have to have a logical and workable immigration policy,” he said.

In response to a question over dysfunction in government, Smith decried partisanship in the Legislature, noting, as an example, Perry’s vote to oppose Medicaid expansion. But Perry lamented the federal government’s “20 trillion in debt.”

“The day of reckoning is coming,” he said. “And what we need to do in Tallahassee is wean ourselves off of the federal government.”

Sparks flew when the candidates discussed their environmental record. Perry mentioned the Orlando Sentinel’s condemnation of Smith during his 2006 campaign; “They said he’d be the worst governor for the environment in the history of Florida,” Perry said, and he pointed to Smith’s poor ranking by the Sierra Club during that campaign.

But Smith noted his endorsement by the Sierra Club in his current campaign. “If I would be the worst, they still picked me over him,” Smith said, and he criticized Perry’s support of fracking and his opposition to local government control of fracking after counties in the Senate District 8 — Marion, Alachua, and Putnam — voted against fracking.

The candidates both voiced strong support for education. “I will place increasing the availability and affordability of education above any concern I have,” Smith said. Perry said his first priority in the 2017 legislative session will be art and music for elementary school students.

They also were in agreement on their support of medical marijuana and the development of solar energy, and they agreed on opposing the amendments to the state constitution proposed on the current ballot, saying that legislation is a better approach.

“There’s nothing that suggests to me that we can’t go into the battlefield of ideas in the legislative process and make the right decision,” Smith said.

Susan Washington is an award winning journalist whose work has appeared in newspapers throughout Florida. She is a native of Sarasota and a graduate of Florida State University.

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