Special Election Candidates Slog Through Only Local Forum, Except When Talk Turns to Guns
FlaglerLive | February 25, 2015
Some 52 people turned out Tuesday evening to see the last four candidates standing for the Florida House and Senate seats up for a special election April 7 in a forum organized by Flagler Votes, the coalition of three local business organizations.
Republican House Rep. Travis Hutson faces Democrat David Cox, an educator at Bethune-Cookman College. Republican attorney Paul Renner faces Democrat Adam Morley, until recently the owner of a recycling business, in the House race. But as often as the competing candidates agreed with each other, it was at times difficult to distinguish Democrat from Republican.
Neither debate nor discussion—candidates could not engage each other, the moderator could not pose follow up questions, time limits or scant knowledge, with a few exceptions during the Hutson-Cox portion of the evening, kept candidates from so much as challenging each other’s statements—the forum was short on substance or surprises and long on generalities and sloganeering (about cutting taxes and representing Flagler especially). If some 20 of the 52 people who’d been in the room at the start had walked out between the first and second segment, you couldn’t blame them (though some of them had just sought a break or a bit more wine before facing the slog of the second segment).
And while prominent local Republicans were in the audience, few Democratic leaders were—perhaps a sign that the party has already surrendered to the inevitable, with two Republican candidates already benefiting from crushing financial advantages set to profit from voting districts drawn purposefully to heavily favor Republican candidates.
They agreed that state trust funds should not be raided. On the state retirement system—considered among the most sound in the nation, and made even sounder by the relatively new requirement that all state employees pay 3 percent of their wages into it—neither candidate could answer the question of how to reform it beyond Renner’s call for making it “fairer,” ensuring its stability and making it more transparent (none of which have been an issue with the system). Morley didn’t know how to answer the question. On economically aligning Flagler with Volusia or St. Johns—north or south—the responses were vague, too, with Morley speaking of developing this region’s own identity and Renner saying it could “try to belong in both places and try to capture what we can from both.”
On taxes, Renner, who repeatedly stressed his conservative credentials, spoke in favor of reducing the sales tax on commercial leases, saying—not quite accurately—that “whatever we tax, we get less of.” Morley, who just sold his recycling business, did not answer the question directly (which had specifically asked how the Legislature should reform taxes on commercial leases), saying he is in “full support of anything that’s going to help our small, local entrepreneurs start their own companies.” Neither sounded thrilled by a proposed sales tax holiday the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
It was not until the fifth question that the two candidates displayed a definable difference on policy. The question was about Amendment 1, the constitutional amendment that requires that a third of all revenue from the tax on documents on real estate transactions be dedicated to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund. The fund’s purpose is explicit: to underwrite sensitive land preservation in the state. The initiative was the end result of five years of the Scott administration zeroing out funding for Florida Forever, which had fulfilled that purpose previously. The amendment passed with 75 percent approval. But the GOP-dominated Legislature has since been pushing to redefine the amendment’s allowances, interpreting it as license to spend money on water projects, including flood-control and other infrastructure initiatives that don’t fit under the ballot initiative’s conservation definition.
Morley stated explicitly that the Legislature was changing voters’ intent “into what’s going to work best for political gain. I would like to see Amendment 1 used how it was intended to be used, and the way that voters thought it was going to be used.” Renner, echoing a majority of local political sentiment, said he believed voters’ intent was broader, including beach restoration and such ongoing issues as the drainage problems in the Malacompra-Marineland Acres area of Flagler’s Hammock. The Flagler Beach City Commission, anticipating its own wastewater and beach restoration projects ahead, passed a resolution calling on the Legislature to take the broader approach, and the county commission is hoping to secure dollars for Malacompra drainage under that same definition.
WNZF Audio: Cox-Hutson
A misleading question about “rising health care cost” and what the candidates propose to “alleviate that burden” was an occasion for Renner to declare he is “absolutely, unequivocally opposed to the Affordable Care Act, I think it’s bad on many, many levels.” Morley, who agreed with Renner to some extent, said he was more inclined to find a “happy medium” with the law. (The verdict on post-ACA health care costs is mixed: while more people are reporting hardship with the affordability of basic medical care because of rising out of pocket costs, which the ACA did not address, fewer people are reporting hardship from medical debts, fewer people are avoiding doctors’ visits for fear of medical bills, and 10 million more people are insured, while the nation’s overall health costs increased at their slowest pace since 1960 in 2013, the last full year for which numbers are available.) (An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed Renner’s opposition to the law to Morley.)
Candidates then turned their attention to questions provided by the audience, including such softballs as what they would do to “promote the positive message that Flagler County is open for business” (a question Moreley said was too broad and undefined to elicit an answer), on legalized gambling (both are opposed) and what to do to better develop the solar energy industry in the state: Morley lives in an all-solar house and is an ardent proponent of the industry, which he said has been purposefully held back by the Legislature and state law that favors fossil-fuel industries. Renner said solar panels are not affordable for now, but could become so, giving the industry a “bright future.” He did not say what he would do as a legislator to make that possible.
Asked if they’d support a proposal to allow guns on Florida’s college and university campuses, Renner said yes, while Morley said he supported “common-sense approaches to guns,” without answering the question.
Morley sought to use his underdog role to his advantage, but with limited effect. Addressing his detractors, he said: “You know what I say? When something is worth fighting for, you don’t give a crap what the odds are, you don’t care what the critics think, and you don’t wait for someone else. You fight. That is what I’m doing here today. I am fighting for my district.” But it was never clear exactly what he was fighting for, leaving one of the only prominent Democrats in attendance to say during a great: “How do I vote for this guy?” The response was not much different than the one Morley got when he met local Democratic leaders earlier this month.
The Senate candidates got largely different questions except for the one on Amendment 1, the land-acquisition amendment, which Hutson interpreted so broadly as to include initiatives that would include desalination plants, sewage treatment and recycling plants. Cox, surprisingly for a candidate keen on environmentalism, did not disagree, and went so far as to wrap in erosion control into his definition of the amendment. “We need to get up there and we need to start fighting for some of these funds to come right here to our communities,” Cox said, “as Travis was talking about, the waterways, we can talk about Flagler Beach which is right here and the road that is eroding and literally falling into the ocean, the issue of not if, but when.”
The rest of the questions were quite a bit more wonkish than the House round, focusing on the Senate’s appropriations process, online voter registration, incentives targeted to specific industries (which they both favor in times of surplus), the job shortage in science and engineering and how to “improve the business climate.” Hutson conflated the question about online voter registration with online voting, and was categorically opposed, saying it lends itself to fraud. “I like the fact that you come in, present an ID, this is who I am, it matches my face, this is where I live, check me off, yes, I’m going to vote,” Hutson said. “I believe that we’ve done several different things to provide more access for voter registration and more access for early voting days and special times for voters to vote.” But, he said, an online would be too costly and voter-prone.
“I have to completely disagree with everything that my opponent just said,” Cox countered. “We need more people to vote in this country. Our voting is down significantly. We just look at the primary my opponent just went through, and the numbers are abysmal.” Easing registration would help, he said, describing the issue in bi-partisan terms and citing other states’ success with online systems. Paying for it should not be an issue in a state that pays for 10 days of early voting. The two candidates were more aligned on a question about Florida’s closed primary system: they “absolutely” agreed with each other, in Hutson’s words: keep it closed.
Hutson, who’s only served one two-year term in the House, sought to portray himself as a seasoned incumbent who knows how to pass bills. Cox has never served in any elected office. He’s an administrator and teacher at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach. But to counter Hutson’s recurring theme, he returned a few times to criticizing Republican-driven process that led to the special election he’s running in, criticizing its cost, its timing, and its short-changing Flagler and the rest of the district of a senator until late in the session. Hutson sought to counter that criticism by describing himself as an active House member still pushing for local dollars—even as, in another answer, he spoke of cutting tax revenue and supporting state employee job cuts.
As in the Morely-Renner segment of the evening, the Hutson-Cox segment dragged and slogged until the end, when they got a bit more interesting with the forum organizer’s last question and with audience-written questions, particularly with the last question: allowing firearms on college campuses. The question had resonance for Cox, being an administrator on a campus where just two evenings ago, three bystanders on campus–Juanya Jones, 20, Keshaun Reeves, 18, and Dante Ridford, 18—were injured by graze wounds from a shooting, though only Reves was hospitalized. (A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that all three had been hospitalized.) Police were still seeking the shooter Wednesday.
WNZF Audio: Morley-Renner
“I’m vehemently against this idea,” Cox said. “I work in a school system, I think that guns have absolutely no place in schools. I spent the majority of the day today, and I was late to the meeting today because we had a school shooting last night at Bethune-Cookman University, where three students were shot.” He summarized the event. “And I’ll tell you, if we allowed concealed weapons and allowed guns to be on our campus, that situation could have continued to escalate and become the OK Corral. They have no place in the classroom, they have no place in the educational system.” The university president, Cox said, echoed the same sentiments.
Renner’s statement against the Affordable Care Act aside, it was the most categorical position-taking of the evening. Hutson cos-sponsored the bill to allow guns on campuses. Cox called for him to withdraw the measure, “as this is now in our backyard.”
Hutson, of course, will not do so. “We’re talking about concealed weapons carry guns, an individual that’s over 21 years old, that’s gone through a complete background check, has nothing in his past, that can carry on campus,” Hutson said. “Some of these are ex-military guys. Some of those have been around and understand how to handle firearms.” Hutson had one caveat: if the student live primarily on campus and the weapon is not in his or her possession, it must be locked in a secure environment like a safe. But safe storage is already the law in Florida.
Cox invited Hutson to visit Bethune-Cookman “to have this discussion about weapons on campuses, because I think if you talked to the students that are on these campuses and the ones that had bullets flying by their heads yesterday, they’ll have a much different opinion of that bill.” Hutson agreed “gladly.”
Asked about their top three issues beyond economic development, job growth and education, Hutson cited beach restoration, water issues and transportation, while Hutson cited Medicaid and Social Security “being secure here” (though neither fall under the Legislature’s authority), and the Affordable Care Act (which in many ways does). “The state of Florida just became No. 1 with the Affordable Care Act, we passed 1.6 million folks, and yet we continue,” Cox said, referring to the Florida Legislature’s opposition to federally funded expansion of Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor that can be vastly enlarged through the ACA, “to deny the federal funds coming in here to the state. Those are federal funds we desperately need here to service this population. The program is in place, it’s here. My opponent and others are adamantly against the Affordable Care Act, but it’s here, it’s in place, we need to work on funding it.”
Cox also cited “opportunities for all” as one of his priorities—the Workforce Opportunity Act, which Hutson co-sponsored last year before the bill died, and which focuses on the LGBT community rights (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) in a state where it’s “still legal” to fire someone based on sexual orientation., Cox said.
The forum was organized by the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce and Affiliates, the Flagler County Home Builders Association and the Flagler County Association of Realtors, whose members developed the questions that preceded audience-supplied questions. The forum was moderated by Howard Holley and broadcast on WNZF.