Our picks for state Senate
The Republican dominance of the Legislature has, inevitably, led to an arrogance of power that has little to do with the conservative values espoused by the party. Witness the creation of the 12th university, Florida Polytechnic, solely to gratify powerful Polk County Sen. JD Alexander, at a time lawmakers were slashing higher education funding. Or consider how special interests that don't get their way with local governments simply go to Tallahassee to overrule community controls. Such high and mighty ways, eventually, are likely to ignite a voter backlash. So it is encouraging to see a couple of level-headed, reform-minded Republican candidates for the Senate. They are challenged by two well-qualified Democrats in races that give all voters a real choice.District 24 In District 24, former Senate President Tom Lee is challenged by Democrat Elizabeth Belcher, who is running for office for the first time. The district includes Plant City, most of Brandon and eastern Hillsborough, New Tampa and part of Temple Terrace. Lee, it's true, had the support of Tallahassee heavyweights during his easy GOP primary victory over state Rep. Rachel Burgin. But in his 1996-to-2006 stint in the Legislature, Lee proved to be independent and gutsy, earning the enduring enmity of powerful special interests by adopting tight controls on lobbyists. He has the experience and backbone to curb Tallahassee overreach. Taxpayers can count on him to be exacting with their money. He had been pushing for more fiscal discipline and planning long before the economic crash. Lee, 50, championed the adoption of a constitutional amendment that required lawmakers to develop a three-year financial planning process. He also was a consistent supporter of thoughtful tax cuts, and helped Gov. Jeb Bush eliminate the intangible tax that hit Floridians who invested for their retirement. Yet Lee, a developer, also understands that state and local governments must invest strategically — building roads, expanding ports and protecting the state's natural beauty — for future success. Belcher, 62, is a former IRS criminal investigator. Smart and civic-minded, she emphasizes the need for stronger ethics, including requiring that when lawmakers add items to the budget, their names be part of the request to take the mystery out of last-minute appropriations. She understands the needs of small businesses as well as the importance of protecting the environment. Personable and a good listener, Belcher is qualified, but Lee is much more likely to have the influence and savvy to help bring the Legislature down to earth. In the state Senate, District 24, The Tampa Tribune endorses Tom Lee. District 26 New state Senate District 26, sprawling from south Hillsborough to Lake Okeechobee, is diverse and will be difficult to represent. Fortunately, voters have a choice of two capable candidates. Former state Rep. Bill Galvano, a Republican from Manatee County, faces Democrat Paula House of Lake Placid. Both are eloquent lawyers, witty and well informed. Galvano, 46, has the edge in experience. He served eight years in the House, where he earned a reputation as a reasonable, thoughtful lawmaker. Galvano understands the importance of transportation planning to the Tampa area. He was a driving force behind the creation of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority. An attorney specializing in business law, Galvano has three children in public school. He wisely opposed a bill to give the state Cabinet the power to allow offshore oil drilling. He is skeptical of the push for mega-casinos in the state. "We beat Las Vegas now," he told us. "Gaming is not going to somehow save this state. We're already the nation's No. 1 tourist destination." House, 62, is more focused on the environment and a lack of transparency in government. An outspoken activist on regional land-use issues, she is opposed to a long-rumored expressway through Central Florida. She says the new road would mostly benefit political insiders. A former public school teacher, she has a small law practice and is active in environmental causes. If elected, she would work to restore state growth regulations. House sees the state's high unemployment rate as a symptom of deeper problems, including poor school performance and questionable state leadership. "Industry takes note of what is driving a state," she said. "Corruption does not attract investment." House is a strong candidate who would benefit from experience in a less demanding elected post. Galvano has the experience and knows how to get things done in a Legislature that often plays hard-ball politics. Galvano stresses the importance of a strong Tampa area delegation to compete with the successful blocs of lawmakers from other parts of the state. He would immediately strengthen the delegation. In Senate District 26, the Tribune endorses Bill Galvano. District 22 In the Republican primary for a district that covers the Tampa peninsula and Davis Islands, Pinellas Park and most of the Pinellas beaches, Pinellas Rep. Jeff Brandes defeated Jim Frishe, another state representative. Brandes now faces only a write-in opponent. Brandes is ambitious and articulate, but unimpressive on the issues, particularly a plan to spend tax dollars developing "inland" ports in rural counties, which looks to be another scheme to enrich select interests. The 35-year-old Iraq War veteran now manages his family's real estate interests and is eager to serve. Perhaps he will mature in office. In District 22, The Tribune endorses Jeff Brandes.
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