At the Palm Coast City Council on Tuesday the city’s lobbyist in Tallahassee, Doug Bell, gave a brief summary analysis of the likely outcome of November’s election: “With this being a presidential election year,” Bell said, “and after we just had redistricting, which evened out a lot of the districts based upon the constitutional amendment, fair districts, I think you will see that the Democrats will make gains in the State Senate. I don’t believe that they will get a majority in the State Senate, but it will be a closer—it will be more even between the Democrats and the Republicans in the State Senate.” But, Bell added it’s still “a long way to go” for Democrats.
Curtis Ceballos, a Flagler County Democrat who just announced his decision to run against Sen. Travis Hutson, hopes to be part of that larger Democratic minority: he launches his bid at Break-Aways, the Flagler Beach restaurant, this evening.
Ceballos has some factors in his favor. The redrawn District 7 added a few more Democrats from tilting further south into Volusia County, and it shed the hard-right voters of Putnam, but it still includes all of very conservative St. Johns, Hutson’s home. Ceballos can draw on Volusia’s and St. Johns’ growing Hispanic voters. In a presidential year projected to draw out Democrats—and, if Donald Trump is the nominee, fewer Republicans—at least a few stars are aligned in Ceballos’s favor.
That said, it’ll still be a challenge to overcome the constellation of advantages in Hutson’s favor, not least of them Hutson’s incumbency, his recent significant successes shoveling pork his district’s way, and his money: even without an opponent, Hutson’s account, opened soon after he won the special election to the Senate seat, drew $55,475, almost $20,000 of which is spent. Ceballos just opened an account. The balance: zero.
Hutson has rich parents and adoring corporations waiting to throw money at him. Ceballos hasn’t drawn a paycheck since starting his company, and has yet to build up some name recognition: as of now, he’d collected 200 of the 1,500 petitions needed to get on the ballot, though the Democratic committees of St. Johns, Flagler and Volusia have pledged their support and are drawing up corporate backing of their own, Ceballos said today, while he himself will be relying on donations in the $5 to $20 range.
It’s the Bernie Sanders model. But don’t compare him to Sanders. He called himself a “conservative Democrat” in an email the day of his announcement—clearly, an attempt to position himself more to the taste of a decidedly right-leaning district. Asked about that today, he qualified the statement.
A “pragmatic Democrat” runs against an incumbent with a short but busy history and stashed coffers.
“I do see along the Democratic line, but I also do see more along the conservative side,” Ceballos said. “I grew up in Connecticut and that kind of brushed off on me, maybe not so much as a conservative Democrat but as a pragmatic Democrat. I know how to stretch a penny, I know how to make it work. I have a startup company for Christ’s sake, I haven’t received a paycheck in almost two years and living off of my wife’s school employee check is very difficult. [His wife Gillian is the first face most people see at Indian Trails Middle School.] At the same time we’ve amassed what we’ve got with our company because we’re very grateful to the people who got us there.”
Ceballos, 54, has been a Palm Coast resident for 18 years. He launched the start-up less than three years ago with two companies—TALKiT, a phone app that gives users the voice equivalent of a text message, and DIGITZ, a coming form of payment that allows a customer to use a fingerprint instead of a cash card. His political experience is limited: he served on the city’s leisure services committee for six years, lost a primary race for the county commission—against the late Bob Abbott—in 2006 by 500 votes and lost a run for Palm Coast council in 2002 by a larger margin, though Hutson had no experience when he first ran for a House seat in 2012, either.
Ceballos is realistic. He acknowledges that he’s a long shot: this is a one-party state once you get past the more liberal tropics of South Florida, and redistricting—the work of the GOP-dominated Legislature– can only work in Democrats’ favor on the margins. “I’m probably going to be more of a thorn in their side than anything else,” Ceballos said, referring to Huston and his backers.
Hutson, interviewed by phone in early evening, said this will be his fourth election in four years. “I’ve always said I welcome any challenge,” he said, as it keeps him sharp and in tune with voters, but from what he knows of Ceballos, he said: “We may be aligned on actually a lot of issues, I don’t know if there’s going to be too much polarizing differences between us.” He added: “I don’t know if D or R matters in terms of the work I’ve been able to put it. Hopefully that’ll carry me to the finish line.”
But Ceballos quickly adds that he has every intention to run to win—not against Hutson, whose record he has not yet fully analyzed, but for a platform that for now has two priorities: more state attention to start-ups, and more attention to vocational education.
The state-start-up connection would be enabled with more money from Enterprise Florida—the state’s private-public partnership with business–to start-ups. But isn’t that the job of venture capitalists rather than the state? Yes, Ceballos says, but “we don’t have enough venture capitalists in the state of Florida,” he says. “A funny thing happens when you start giving incentives and subsidies to companies, then all of a sudden the venture money starts showing up.”
Gov. Rick Scott wanted to shift half a billion dollars into Enterprise Florida’s coffers. But the agency has been criticized for using its funds inappropriately, lavishing its own—or business—with perks behind thick veils of secrecy, in the name of protecting companies. The Legislature largely rebuffed Scott’s request this year.
Still, Ceballos refers to the region locally as the new “Silicon Beach,” as in the beach’s version of Silicon Valley, but with more affordable housing. The region is poised for technology-related jobs, he says, as opposed to low-end, low-wage retail jobs (such as those Palm Coast is focused on.) How can his focus not be seen as a self-serving venture in itself? “I’m not running for my company, I’m running for education and technology jobs for this area,” he says.
His other goal is more attention to vocational education–an almost identical issue that Hutson says he champions. Ceballos wants to see a vocational school in the western part of the Flagler, for example. That may sound more like the job of a school board member, and an unusual priority at a time when some of the district’s schools still have 20 percent vacancies—there are no plans for a new school in the near future, and if there are, that school would not be anywhere near the west side—but Ceballos insists it’s a coming necessity, because not everyone is interested in college and the marketplace is demanding skilled vocational workers.
Ceballos said he’s spoken with two companies willing to partner with the local district to provide equipment for a vocational school. Hutson says the legislature’s role would be to offer tax incentive to such companies to encourage them to do just that.
Ceballos says he has no intention of running negatively against Hutson, whose achievements he acknowledges. That’s usually the promise of most start-up politicians: the campaign trail tends to disillusion them quickly of that ideal, especially in a political climate dangerously warming with bile. But relative to other campaigns, Hutson’s have tended to skirt mud and stick to letting his well-fed coffers do the talking.
On the other hand, Hutson said he’s been so busy with special sessions that he’s not had time to raise money, as he had in the past. He said the race from his perspective will be distilled to this: will voters want him to continue doing what he’s been doing, or will they want a change.