Meet the Newest Members of the Florida Senate
11 newcomers include two former Senate leaders, seven House members
Around the State
But the new members have a good deal of experience in office -- and seven are veterans of the House in recent years. Incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, should be able to control the Senate easily, because 28 of the body’s 40 members are Republicans.
With Democrat Dave Aronberg leaving the Senate due to term limits and an unsuccessful bid at his party’s attorney general nomination, the Republicans picked up his seat. Lizbeth Benacquisto defeated Kevin Rader on Election Day. Benacquisto will represent parts of Charlotte, Glades, Hendry, Lee and Palm Beach counties. Benacquisto has lived in the Sunshine State for three decades and served as a councilwoman in Wellington for two terms. She capped off her service in Wellington as vice mayor.
A familiar face in Tallahassee has replaced Jeff Atwater, who moved from Senate president to state CFO. First elected to the House in a special election in 2004, Ellyn Bogdanoff rose to serve as majority whip before defeating fellow House Republican Carl Domino for the Republican nomination and Rep. Kelly Skidmore, a Democrat, in the general election. Bogdanoff will represent parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties. Bogdanoff focused on fiscal issues during her campaign, arguing that the state needs to cut public spending and lower taxes for the economy to recover.
With Alex Diaz de la Portilla leaving the Senate, his seat representing part of Miami-Dade County stays with the Republicans and with the family -- now holds the seat. While the new senator certainly has a famous name, he has a solid record in his own right. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla has spent more than two decades practicing law, winning accolades from Martindale Hubbell and Florida Trend. He has also served on the Miami-Dade County Commission, becoming the youngest chairman in its history. Besides calling for free-market solutions on financial matters, the new senator also pledged to fight for Second Amendment rights and against abortion while he is in Tallahassee.
While new to the Senate, Greg Evers is not new to the Legislature, having served nine years in the House. Evers replaces his fellow Republican Durell Peaden, who represented all of Holmes and Washington counties and parts of Bay, Escambia, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Walton counties for a decade. Evers came up through Okaloosa County on the Panhandle, serving as chairman of the Yellow River Soil and Water Conservation District and as president of the county Florida Farm Bureau. Despite his agricultural background -- Evers raises strawberries -- his focus in the House was on other matters, serving as chairman of the Roads, Bridges and Ports Policy Committee and as vice chair of the Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations Committee. The conservative Evers was honored by the Christian Coalition three times with its “Faith and Family Award.”
With Alex Villalobos retiring, Anitere Flores kept his seat, representing part of Miami-Dade County, in Republican hands. Haridopolos has already tapped Flores for his leadership team, naming her a majority whip. While Flores may be new to the Senate, she is not new in party leadership roles. During her three terms in the House, she rose to serve as deputy majority whip while focusing on education policy issues and appropriations. While Flores has focused on education matters, she is also a social conservative and a feisty opponent of abortion.
Voters in parts of Miami-Dade traded one Garcia for another, as term-limited Rudy Garcia leaves the Senate and his fellow Republican Rene Garcia (no relation) joins it. Rene Garcia is no stranger to Tallahassee. After serving three years on the Hialeah City Council, Garcia was elected to the House in 2000 and served four terms before being term-limited out in 2008. While he focused on health care during his time in the House, Garcia also rose in the leadership ranks, winding up as deputy majority whip.
A retired dentist, Alan Hays served three terms in the House before winning election to the Senate, replacing fellow Republican Carey Baker representing parts of Lake, Marion, Seminole, Sumter and Volusia counties. While Hays has worked on fiscal issues in the House, he is also a social conservative, comparing abortion to the Holocaust earlier in the year. His commitment to traditional values has led the Christian Coalition to present awards to Hays during his three terms in the House.
Jack Latvala is back in the Senate after being absent for eight years. First elected in 1994, Latvala served two terms before stepping down in 2002. He was re-elected to the Senate on Election Day, taking the seat which had been held by Charlie Justice, who made an ill-starred campaign against U.S. Rep. Bill Young. While Latvala picked up the seat for the Republicans -- the seat covers parts of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties -- and while he did serve a stint as majority leader, he has made no secret of disagreeing with the party on drilling in Florida waters.
Like Latvala, Gwen Margolis is no stranger to the Senate. A veteran of Tallahassee since first being elected to the House in 1974, this will be her third stint in the Senate. She served from 1980 until 1992 and again from 2002 until 2008. Margolis served as Senate president from 1990 until 1992, the first woman in that position. She takes the place of her fellow Democrat Dan Gelber in representing parts of Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Gelber came up short in his campaign to be the state’s attorney general.
Democrat Bill Montford will take the place of outgoing Senate Democratic Leader Al Lawson, who faced term limits and was defeated in his bid for Congress. A career educator, Montford was elected Leon County superintendent of schools in 1996 and served as CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents before deciding to seek election to the Senate. Montford has deep ties to the area and even has a school named after him in Tallahassee. He’ll represent all of Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Jackson, Liberty and Wakulla counties, plus parts of Bay, Jefferson, Leon and Madison counties.
With Victor Crist facing term limits, Republicans kept his seat, representing parts of Hillsborough and Pasco counties, with the election of Jim Norman. While Norman had no Democratic opponent in November, his path to the Senate was anything but easy. Norman defeated Rep. Kevin Ambler in the Republican primary only for a judge to remove him from the ballot due to violating campaign finance laws. Republicans selected former Sen. Rob Wallace to be their nominee -- only for another judge to place Norman back on the ballot. A conservative who backs enforcing laws on immigration, Norman served 17 years on the Hillsborough County Commission.
After two terms in the House,Maria Lorts Sachs heads to the Senate, keeping for the Democrats the seat held by Ted Deutch, who was elected to Congress. Sachs will represent parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties. She made an impression in the House, serving as the ranking Democrat on the Roads, Bridges and Ports Policy Committee and even having Speaker Larry Cretul allow her to preside over the House -- a rare honor for a Democrat. She angered several Democrats in her district for backing Gov. Charlie Crist’s Senate ambitions over Democratic nominee Kendrick Meek.
With Lee Constantine facing term limits, Republicans kept his seat, representing parts of Orange and Seminole counties, as David Simmons will head back to Tallahassee. First elected to the House in 2000, Simmons served four terms before facing term limits in 2008. During that time he handled some top assignments, including chairman of the Judiciary, Education Appropriations and the 21st Century Competitiveness committees. Simmons was a conservative in his time in the House, winning four awards from the Christian Coalition. He joins the Senate as part of its leadership, having been named by Haridopolos to handle majority whip duties with fellow freshman Anitere Flores.
Reach Kevin Derby at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (850) 727-0859