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Politics

Democratic Battleground Emerges for South Florida Open House Seat

July 22, 2013 - 6:00pm

With Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Pembroke Park, facing term limits in 2014, three Democratic candidates are already running hard to replace him in the Florida House. Gibbons, who is now running for the Broward County Commission, represents parts of Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

So far, former North Bay Village Mayor Joe Geller, Hallandale Beach Vice Mayor Alex Lewy and teacher John Paul Alvarez are seeking the Democratic nomination to replace Gibbons. Whoever emerges in the Democratic primary in 2014 will be a heavy favorite to head up to Tallahassee. No Republicans are currently running for this seat which is a solid Democratic district.

Having served two terms as mayor of North Bay Village, winning the second one without opposition, Geller has an extensive background. Geller, an attorney, has run for the Florida House before, losing to Richard Steinberg in the Democratic primary back in 2008.

Geller led Miami-Dade Democrats for more than a decade and with his civic work, including serving as the regional president of the American Jewish Congress and working with Cuban activists looking to bring democracy to that nation. He has connections with many people and that has helped him in the money chase. Jumping in the race in early April, he had a strong fundraising start, bring in more than $50,000 in cash. Adding $25,000 he loaned his campaign and spending less than $320, Geller had around $74,700 on hand at the end of June.

Geller talked to Sunshine State News Tuesday on what he hopes to focus on during the campaign and if elected.

Im doing this because I think I can make a difference in Tallahassee, he said. Ive studied the issues.

Geller said he was a good listener who can work with both sides to get things done and pointed to his record in public life. He said he would focus on improving education at the K-12 and postsecondary levels. He said he would focus on insurance, including wind insurance which is important to coastal residents, improving the CAT Fund and helping Citizens Property Insurance.

Geller also stressed the importance of ensuring a healthy economy. That makes everything possible, he said. He said he supported accepting federal dollars for high speed rail in South Florida.

Turning to healthcare, Geller was critical of the decision by Republicans in Tallahassee not to accept more federal funding for it. Healthcare is a critical issue, he said. Im dismayed weve given up billions in federal aid for Floridians who dont have coverage.

On social issues, Geller said women should have the right to have an abortion. There is an assault on the rights of women, he said, adding this issue was very important to me. He also said he supported same sex marriage and expanded civil rights for the LGBT community. The national trend is clear, he said. I am a supporter of marriage equality.

With Floridas Stand Your Ground law in the news, Geller said he supported holding a special session of the Legislature to repeal the law. We need to send the message this isnt Dodge City, he said. Geller said repealing Stand Your Ground would not be an assult on the Second Amendment but would help public safety.

Only 32, Lewy entered the race three days after Geller did. First elected to the Hallandale Beach City Commission back in 2010, Lewy served on Kendrick Meeks staff for five years when that Democrat served in Congress.

Speaking to Sunshine State News on Tuesday, Lewy said his campaign would be unveiling some major endorsements in the weeks to come and stressed he was a lifetime resident of the district, even calling himself a "condo kid." Lewy said his connections to the district was why he was running for the Florida House.

"This is my home," he said. "As a local elected official, I was looking to make sure we had the best representation for our community."

Lewy told Sunshine State News he hoped other local officials would run but they often turned around and asked him to enter the race."I felt it was a responsibility to run and I had to stand up," he said.

Noting his years in local office and his lifetime in the district,Lewy has stressed his record in office and insists, if elected to the Florida House, he will continue to work with seniors and vowed to fight against Medicaid cuts. He also plans to fight for more funding for education and better pay for teachers.

I will continue to protect families while fighting for efficient, effective and ethical government, Lewy said in his campaign kickoff. My time in public service has been focused on making government work for the people and protecting those who need our help the most.

Lewy stressed his social liberalism, including expanding rights for gay Floridians.

Our Legislature needs someone who has a proven track record of standing up for social justice and equality, said Lewy. I was proud to champion an historic first-in-the-nation initiative to bring tax equity to our domestic partner employees in Hallandale Beach. Social justice is a deep seated value my parents bestowed in me at an early age. Equal pay for equal work, livable wages and individual rights are not talking points or bargaining tools. They are the fundamental principles of freedom and justice this nation was founded on.

Lewy expressed disappointment with the recent decision of a jury which found George Zimmerman not guilty in the death of Trayvon Martin. This was a bad case, Lewy insisted after the decision was announced. Horrible evidence and witnesses. Bad Florida laws that allowed the injustice. Lewy has expressed support for repealing Floridas Stand Your Ground law.

Speaking to Sunshine State News on Tuesday, Lewy said he supported repealing the state's Stand Your Ground law though he did not expect Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican leadership in Tallahassee to call a special session to change the law.

Since entering the race in early April, Lewy has done well with fundraising but he has not been able to keep pace with Geller in the money chase. In the second quarter of 2013, Lewy raised almost $33,800 and had around $33,200 on hand at the end of June.

This is not the first time Alvarez has run for the Florida House. With both of his parents leaving Cuba, Alvarez grew up in South Florida but he moved to the Space Coast where he ran against Rep. John Tobia, R-Melbourne Beach, in Brevard County last year and lost in a close contest. Having returned to South Florida, Alvarez launched his campaign back in March and assembled a team of veteran Democratic activists to help his bid. A member of Alvarezs staff spoke to Sunshine State News on Tuesday and stressed the candidates attending public schools as a child led him to become a teacher and shaped his commitment to improving education in Florida.

Alvarez is calling for reforming the FCAT, abolishing merit pay for teachers, helping small businesses and supporting LGBT rights. After Zimmerman was found not guilty, Alvarez offered his disagreement with the most unwelcomed" decision.

We live in a land of laws, not justice, but that does not mean we stop fighting for it, Alvarez insisted. We must work together and use the tools at our disposal to fight the good fight. We must use our votes to elect better leaders; those leaders need to use their votes to pass fair and just legislation, and to keep destructive legislation from ever reaching the desk of the governor.

We have achieved much thanks to the previous generation but we still have so much further to go and we will not get there if we are complacent with the progress that we have made, Alvarez added. As disappointed, as angry as we are, we must not act rashly or be discouraged. We must continue to fight, my friends. We must remain vigilant. Surely the storm does not last always.

The campaign staffer pointed to Alvarezs commitment to transportation, including support for high speed rail in South Florida. The staffer said Alvarez supported accepting federal dollars for high speed rail.

So far, Alvarez has not been able to keep pace with his two Democratic rivals in the money chase. He has raised more than $4,060 in cash and relied on almost $1,300 through in-kind donations. The bulk of his war chest comes through $9,550 he loaned his campaign. At the end of June, Alvarez had spent almost $2,900 and had around $10,700 on hand.

Reach Kevin Derby at kderby@sunshinestatenews.com or at (904) 521-3722.

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