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.
Property records indicate he owns the two-bedroom, $322,000 home with Susan Goldstein, a lobbyist and former Republican state legislator from Weston; and John Rayson and his wife Kathleen. Rayson is a former Democratic state representative from Pompano Beach.
Saunders said he believes he is entitled to take the homestead exemption on his Cudjoe Key home but doesn’t, he said, because “there is some gray area in the law.”
His wife is a nurse at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, and his son attends school in the capital city. Saunders said residency questions were raised in his 2006 House campaign but voters were not concerned about it then and he doesn’t expect them to be concerned this time around.
Meanwhile, Saunders and Bullard have had nearly identical voting records in the House on the most divisive issues before lawmakers, including those important to the governor. One exception was on a bill that would have expanded the rights of gun owners to carry concealed weapons. Saunders supported it while Bullard opposed it.
According to campaign finance reports filed July 20, Saunders has raised $102,000 to Bullard’s $35,600. Bush has raised $8,135 while the other candidates have reported only personal loans of $2,000 to their campaigns.
Bullard is not daunted by being outspent. The Bullards “always succeed in spite of a heavier financed opponent,” he said.
The Bullard family is one of many Miami family political dynasties. Larcenia Bullard was first elected to the House in 1992, replaced by her husband, Edward, in 2000 and then Dwight in 2008.
Dwight Bullard, 35, was born in Philadelphia and moved to Miami with his family at age 4. He is a graduate of Miami Killian High School and Florida A&M University, where he earned a bachelor’s in history education. He currently teaches social studies at Coral Reef Senior High School.
As a teacher, Dwight Bullard’s political focus has been on education. He wants schools to move away from reliance on standardized testing. He told The Miami Herald in its candidate questionnaire that he supports the proposal to require all internet sales to be subject to the state sales tax and he wants the money earmarked for public education, not private school vouchers.
He said his advantage comes from the fact that more than 60 percent of the voter base in the district is in Miami Dade and the African-American community, which comprises 42 percent of the district voters, is energized to go to the polls on primary day to defeat the slate of candidates supported by auto magnate Norman Braman.
Saunders, 57, is a native of Key West and self-employed attorney. He is a graduate of Key West High School and the University of Florida, both undergraduate and law school.
He first served in the House of Representatives from 1986-94 and returned in 2006, last serving as House Democratic leader. He calls himself the most pro-business candidate in the race, having received the endorsements of the Florida Chamber and Florida Realtors Association.
Saunders had hoped to draw cross-over Republicans voters from Monroe County to give him the boost he needs in the primary but those hopes were dashed when a write-in Republican who filed to challenge Hopes, dropped out July 17.
“I get zero cross over now,’’ Saunders said. “He made it a much closer primary than it would have been.”
Saunders told the Miami Herald in its questionnaire that he would address the current budget shortfall by eliminating Medicaid fraud and believes that the woes of Citizens Property Insurance would be resolved if the insurer were “more responsive to needs of premium payers.”
Bush, 57, is a graduate of Bethune Cookman College, holds a master’s in educational administration from Nova Southeastern University and a doctor of ministry-education from Smith Chapel Bible Study. He is a teacher at Morningside Elementary and represented Miami in the Florida House from 1992-2000 and again from 2008-10. He did not run for re-election in 2010. He is married and has two grown sons and three grandchildren.
“For 30 years, I’ve been in these areas, working among the people,’’ Bush said. “I know the pulse of the community.”
Gutierrez, 65, said he lived 25 years in Key Largo and currently lives outside Tampa in Hudson. On his candidate questionnaire for the Miami Herald, he indicated that government is doing enough to manage resources and fund education but would like to see better teachers.
He would resolve the windstorm crisis by getting “insurance companies out of the campaign finance business,” he supports oil drilling off Florida shores, believes the state’s pension fund is “too plush” and considers his principle goal is to “shrink government.” When asked what changes he would make to Florida’s Sunshine Law, his answer was blunt: “cut their tongues out.”
Johnson could not be reached and did not respond to the questionnaire.