State Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach, has all the ingredients an incumbent could hope for in seeking his final state House term: More than $60,000 in donations, nearly a decade under his belt as an elected official and a leadership title in Tallahassee.
But after redistricting, Gibbons landed in a newly drawn district where only about 43 percent of the voters are in his home county of Broward while the majority lie in Miami-Dade. He now faces fellow Democrat Sheldon Lisbon, who is trying to parlay his brief stint on the Surfside Town Commission and connections in the Jewish community to oust Gibbons in the coastal House 100th district, which spans from Surfside to Dania Beach.
The battle here isn’t for the most part about issues — both support increasing money for schools, closing corporate tax loopholes and protecting beaches from drilling. It’s a fight about experience, connections and the words Lisbon has used to appeal to Jewish voters in an overwhelmingly white and heavily Jewish district as he runs against a black politician. No Republican filed to run, so the winner of the Aug. 14 primary clinches the two-year job.
Lisbon has an interesting personal story to tell as the son of Holocaust survivors born in a displaced persons’ camp in Germany who later taught in Washington, D.C., public schools for decades. But his messages about improving public education and revamping government ethics have been overshadowed by his political missteps during his first true campaign contest.
“I’m not the political savvy guy that Joe Gibbons is,” Lisbon said.
Gibbons, who is backed by many unions, also has the upper hand in fundraising as the incumbent who can attract donations from those with business interests in Tallahassee. As of July 20, Gibbons had raised about $61,500 while Lisbon had raised about $13,500 and loaned his campaign about $21,000.
Lisbon won his Surfside commission seat in the small Miami-Dade town without opposition in March and two months later announced he would resign to run for state House — angering some residents because it will cost the town about $20,000 for a special election.
Lisbon said he quickly got a phone call from a Democratic official asking him not to run. But Lisbon said that the issues he cares about — protecting the elderly and public education — make him a good fit for the Legislature. Lisbon describes himself as a “moderate Lieberman-type Democrat” who can compromise with the other side.
In June, Lisbon sent an email to supporters with the subject line: “A Vote for Shelly Lisbon is a Vote for the Jewish Community” and stated “This district is primarily a Jewish district composed of residents like us.”
The Anti-Defamation League, which fights anti-Semitism, sent Lisbon a letter asking him to retract his “divisive” email. Lisbon called the ADL “despicable” but later apologized for that comment. Florida Democratic Party chairman Rod Smith wrote a letter to Democrats warning candidates not to appeal for votes based on religious affiliation.
Lisbon defended his email saying that he was reaching out to his base to solicit donations to compete against Gibbons, who has taken donations from lobbyists and those with gambling interests.