THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, July 3, 2012
Michael Peltier, The News Service of Florida
The battle in a traditional minority access state Senate district pits a family heir apparent against former colleagues including a prominent white candidate from the Florida Keys who is hoping a split vote will work in his favor.
Senate District 39, a heavily Democratic district encompassing all of Monroe County, and portions of Collier but anchored in Miami-Dade, will pit former House Democratic leader Ron Saunders against Rep. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami and son of Larcenia and Edward Bullard, who both represented voters in the region since 1992.
Rounding out the Democratic field is former state Rep. James Bush III; John "JJ" Johnson and self-described property rights advocate Sal Gutierrez, who has run as a Republican in previous races.
The winner of the Aug 14 primary will face Republican hopeful Scott Hopes, a healthcare CEO, lobbyist and Republican executive committeeman. He faces long odds in a district that traditionally votes Democratic and where in 2008 Barack Obama won more than 70 percent of the vote.
It's a sprawling district of disparate needs, running from tourist dependent Key West, through Miami-Dade corridor that includes Miami International Airport and Jackson Memorial Hospital and into the agricultural regions of Immokalee, LaBelle and Clewiston
In the Miami-Dade part of the district, Bullard, 35, has name recognition from serving in the House, and from his mother and father's time in politics. His mother, Larcenia, has represented the Senate district – though in slightly different geographic form, since 2002. Before that, she spent eight years in the House. Dwight's father, Edward, represented House District 118 from 2000 to 2008.
First elected in 2008, the younger Bullard, a school teacher, spent the past few years pushing for changes in the way the state assesses student achievement, including unsuccessful attempts to revamp the FCAT. He has also spearheaded efforts to allow the children of undocumented immigrants, many of whom have spent most of their lives in the United States, to qualify for in-state tuition and financial aid.
"While a lot of politicians, especially Democrats, have tried to get things passed for the sake of getting things passed that were digestible by the other side, I really tried to tackle some really tough issues, some pointed issues," Bullard said.
Bullard said family ties going back two decades will allow him to work across the aisle with Republicans, who are expected to maintain their majority.
"The bulk of what we do as policymakers in the state of Florida is bipartisan," Bullard said. "I can manage the best of both worlds. I can raise awareness. I've been a student in that classroom for quite some time."
The most senior member of the field is Saunders. The Key West Democrat, who spends a lot of his time in Tallahassee, was first elected to a Democrat-controlled House in 1986 and served eight years, including two as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. He returned to the House in 2006 and for the past two years was the Democratic leader.
Saunders, 57, said he plans to bring that budget and leadership experience to the Senate, predicting that the traditionally less partisan upper chamber will give him more freedom to work with senior Republicans and get things done.
"I think the Republicans respect my knowledge of the budget," Saunders said. "I think I can work well across the aisle on issues like job creation and funding for education, infrastructure, that type of thing."
Saunders said he will campaign as a voice for change in the district, and downplayed the Bullard dynasty, noting some voters represented by one of the family may not have been happy with their representation.
"For people who are unhappy with the state of affairs, I'm the candidate of change that they may be looking for," Saunders said.
Another former lawmaker making a bid to return is James Bush. Now 57, he spent eight years in the House from 1992 to 2000 before returning in 2008 for another two-year stint. He stepped aside in 2010 while his wife, Bernadine ran, but lost to Rep. Cynthia Stafford. James Bush then lost to Oscar Braynon in a special election in 2011 for Senate District 33.
Bush said he's maintained strong ties to the district. As a teacher he has spent nearly 30 years in the school district. He's also continued be involved in community causes and events.
"I'm not coming back, I've been here all long," Bush said. "I haven't been in office of that type but I've been involved in the community and I understand the needs of District 39."
When he was in the House, Bush's district was one of the poorest in the state. The current Senate District likewise includes many low income voters for whom public education is a lifeline that needs be improved, he said. The area was hard hit by the housing crash, with foreclosures threatening and already tenuous local economy.
Saunders has said he may have a chance because Bush and Bullard may split the vote in Miami-Dade County, allowing Saunders to win by carrying Monroe.
The race is not only a Democrat affair. The winner of the August primary will face Scott Hopes, 51, CEO of a Miami-based medical software company. He has also been a long-time lobbyist, rubbing elbows with agency and legislative members for a range of health care clients.
A 1983 University of South Florida graduate, Hopes took a position as an administrator at Tampa General Hospital before going into the consulting arena, first at Ernst and Young and then on his own. In 1999, Scott was tapped by former Gov. Jeb Bush to analyze the state's certificate of need program and later took a job at the Agency for Health Care Administration.
Hopes said he jumped into the race, in part because he did not want independent and Republican voters to be locked out of the election process in a closed Democratic primary. Beyond that, however, he said he would bring fresh perspective in a district that has traditionally been represented by Miami-Dade senators.
"I felt there were better options of candidates who could better represent the diversity of the district," Hopes said. "All these areas have different needs. Whether it's bridges, whether it's roads, whether it's support for economic development and industry…. It's incredibly diverse."
Hopes said his party affiliation would help him if Republicans retain their control in both chambers.
"There is no denying that there will be a majority or a supermajority of Republicans," Hopes said. "Who is going to be more influential in the Legislature for these communities than someone from the majority party?"
The Republican's biggest obstacle may be the district itself. As drawn, District 39 is overwhelmingly Democratic. In 2008, Democrat Obama took 70.5 percent of the vote. Republican John McCain took 28.8 percent.
"I'm not worried about November, that will be a slam dunk," Saunders said. "I'm just worried about the primary."
Neither Johnson nor Gutierrez commented for this article.