CLEARWATER — Three Democrats will compete this month for a shot at taking Pinellas County’s District 67 House seat out of Republican hands.
Term-limited Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, who won in 2012 with 53 percent of the vote, is leaving the seat. With two young Republican candidates in the Aug. 26 primary, Democrats see an opportunity to gain a foothold in this district that encompasses a large section of Largo and Clearwater.
Among the Democratic candidates, union president and longtime city of Clearwater account manager Stephen Sarnoff, 61, says he would bring years of negotiating skills to the Florida Legislature.
Shawna Vercher, 37, says her experience in business and political communications makes her an ideal candidate to voice the needs of people in her district, she says.
Dairy worker Thomas Ryan, 61, has little political background, but says his life experience working his way up through the business world gives him a down-to-earth perspective about the struggles facing everyday Floridians.
While all three say concrete issues facing their constituents such as school funding and transportation will drive their decisions rather than party politics, they hope to tip the scales in November by motivating left-leaning residents to get out the vote.
“Every apartment complex, every 55-and-over community, I have to visit between now and November, to talk to them, to show them my face, to talk to them about my life story,” said Sarnoff.
Education would be Sarnoff’s top priority in Tallahassee because he says he’s “tired of seeing our schools being starved to death.”
An employee of Clearwater’s solid waste department, Sarnoff has represented workers as president of the local Communications Workers of America union since 1999.
That role brought him to Tallahassee frequently and has made him adept at understanding all sides of an issue before taking a position.
“How can you do a collective bargaining agreement if you don’t know what the other side knows?” he said.
Vercher hopes to win the primary and the November election through strong political organization.
She has 70 people working on her election campaign and has out-raised her opponents with $24,640, compared with Sarnoff’s $13,137 and Ryan’s $465.
“None of us can do anything unless we make it to Tallahassee,” she said.
Her career has landed her in roles as a technology consultant for former Gov. Jeb Bush, hosting a radio show and helping garner votes in President Obama’s 2008 campaign.
She gained national attention in a legal spat with a former NBA referee who claimed he wasn’t paid by her company after publishing his memoir. The $1.3 million lawsuit drove her business to bankruptcy and Vercher is appealing the court’s decision.
Florida’s legal system favors the wealthy and one of her reasons for running for office is to reform it, she said.
“We have to get a system that is accessible to people even if they don’t have that type of funding,” she said.
It’s Ryan’s story of growing up in a low-income home and working his way up in the business world that he says makes him the right voice for underrepresented people in Florida.
Ryan works at Dairy Mix in St. Petersburg, but has known the sting of losing jobs and businesses through the years.
When politicians talk of shrinking Medicaid or dismiss the need for public transit options, Ryan knows the hardships these policies have on working-class people.
“It seemed like poverty was overpowering, but in climbing out of it, I think it’s really made me a lot stronger and a lot more attuned to the needs of the people,” he said.
This is Ryan’s first foray into the political world and he says maintaining strong funding for schools and stabilizing insurance rates are among his top campaign issues.
While votes in the general election could be split closely between the two parties, Ryan doesn’t shy away from the label of “liberal” when talking to residents in the district.
“I’m a strong liberal voice and I think more of that is needed,” he said.