TALLAHASSEE _ The race for the Democratic nominee for Senate District 39 has come down to a contest between legacies.
Dwight Bullard, a member of the House of Representatives and son of the current state senator in the post, hopes to continue carrying the family mantle while Ron Saunders, currently the House Democratic leader, is hoping to become the first senator from the Keys in 40 years.
The race is a rematch of sorts. In 2004, Saunders lost the race against Dwight’s mother, Larcenia Bullard. Dwight Bullard had served as her campaign manager.
But there’s one more major change this time around: Redistricting has condensed District 39 from six to four counties: Monroe, Miami-Dade, Collier and Hendry. It still remains one of the largest districts in the state.
Also on the ballot is James Bush III, a former state representative who has served two terms in the Florida House; Sal Gutierrez, who formerly lived in Key Largo and now lives near Tampa (he would have to relocate if elected); and John “JJ” Johnson of Miami.
The winner of the Aug. 14 primary will face Republican Scott Hopes of Homestead in the general election.
In the Bullard vs. Saunders race eight years ago, the campaign became ugly when a shadowy political group backed by money from U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals sent out last minute direct mail pieces against Saunders, portraying him as someone trying to “turn back the clock” because he was a white man taking on a black woman. One mailing depicted scenes of police hosing down civil rights protestors from the Birmingham riots of the 1960s. The group that financed the ads, People for Fairness and Equality, ultimately was fined by the Florida Elections Commission for failing to include proper disclaimers on their mailers.
This time, shadowy political groups are again a fixture on the campaign scene and while the Bullard vs. Saunders charges and counter-charges are present, they are, as of now, not nearly as nasty.
Two weeks ago, Bullard’s father, Edward Bullard, created an electioneering committee known as Tomorrow’s Vision for Florida. The organization sent out mail pieces accusing Saunders of voting for “Rick Scott’s agenda.”
Meanwhile, Saunders’ supporters have highlighted Bullard’s rocky record of completing the paperwork required for his campaign and for hiring a campaign staffer accused of ballot fraud. They have relied on a St. Petersburg political consultant to write about it often it on his blog.
Bullard has repeatedly paid fines for filing his campaign finance reports a day late to the Division of Elections. He said the last instance happened when a “computer froze up, shut down and prevented me from getting my information in there on a timely fashion.” He said he will “willingly pay the fine.” He also failed to file his personal financial disclosure report on time.
Bullard defends hiring campaign consultant Timothy Milton, a Florida City resident used by several candidates, Bullard said, because Milton knows the political terrain.
He said Milton has “never been convicted or tried” on the ballot fraud allegations.
Meanwhile, Saunders is counting on voters to overlook his homestead property paperwork.
Records show he and his wife, Melodie, own a home in Tallahassee in which she takes a homestead exemption. Saunders, who is required to live in the district he represents, said he owns a waterfront home on Cudjoe Key.