Big-money Democrats face off in Broward Senate race

Trial attorney Gary Farmer has no intention of playing nice in his first foray into electoral politics.

Farmer, a Democrat, has accused his opponents of voting with the National Rifle Association, defunding public education and supporting fracking in Florida.

But his opponents, former state Rep. Jim Waldman and sitting state Rep. Gwyn Clarke-Reed, are also Democrats, even though the campaign for the state Senate seat has the tone of an inter-party race. The three will face off in the Aug. 30 primary, and the winner will be a heavy favorite over Republican Antoanet Iotova and write-in candidate Valerie Saffran.

“I’m the true progressive — dare I say liberal Democrat — in this race,” Farmer said. “Jim Waldman voted to expand Stand your Ground.”

Farmer was referring to a vote in the Legislature on the 2014 “warning shot” bill, which gives additional protections to people who fire weapons to defend themselves. However, some law enforcement agencies said the bill, which became law in June 2014, made Stand Your Ground harder to enforce.

“The bill had nothing to do with Stand your Ground,” Waldman said. “In fact, it actually ... weakens Stand your Ground. You have the ability to not have to kill somebody.”

That bill, which had the backing of the NRA, passed the House 93-24, with 18 Democrats in favor. Waldman voted in favor while Clarke-Reed did not.

The spat is one of many back-and-forth moments between Farmer and Waldman, who see the primary as a two-way race. Farmer has raised nearly $500,000 with $103,000 in loans and Waldman just under $375,000 with $202,500 in loans, making the District 34 race one of the most expensive in the state. Both Farmer and Waldman are wealthy lawyers.

State Rep. Clarke-Reed trails the pair in fundraising, having raised $24,769.

Waldman says he’s familiar with Farmer, since “he lobbied me for eight years in the Florida House,” and says that Farmer never expressed any issues with his votes in Tallahassee until he decided to run for office.

“He never came to me about any issue other than attorneys’ fees and attorney issues,” Waldman said. “What Gary is doing is just talking and making promises and statements.”

Those statements include a charge from Farmer that Waldman received an “A” rating from the NRA in 2010. A PolitiFact article said Farmer’s claim was not true. Waldman’s grade was once listed as an “A” on the NRA website, but the NRA said the grade was incorrectly posted and Waldman’s actual grade was a “D.”

“That whole PolitiFact is a head-scratcher to me,” Farmer said. “That was an orchestrated coup by the NRA to support Jim Waldman. He was “A” rated for six years and he called the NRA to change and the NRA complied.”

Farmer doesn’t have proof for his claim, and a hard-copy version of NRA’s magazine shows Waldman’s 2010 grade as a “D.”

Clarke-Reed doesn’t have the campaign war chest to stuff mailboxes with literature, but still has harsh words for Farmer.

“Jim knows me and I know Jim,” Clarke-Reed said. “Gary Farmer is a totally different story as far as I’m concerned. He has no knowledge of what being an elected person is about.”

Farmer also has harsh words for the so-called “Pop-Tart” bill, NRA-supported legislation that loosened zero-tolerance policies for simulated gunplay in schools after a student was suspended for fashioning a Pop-Tart breakfast pastry into the shape of a gun.

“The NRA decided they knew better than teachers to override the code of conduct and bring modified guns into school,” Farmer said.

Waldman and Clarke-Reed voted for the “Pop-Tart” bill, which passed 98-17 in the House, and became law.

Farmer also attacked Waldman and Clarke-Reed’s voting records on environmental issues and education.

“Both of my opponents have voted to take public education dollars away from public schools and put them into vouchers,” Farmer said. “Both of my opponents voted to begin fracking in the state of Florida.”

Waldman and Clarke-Reed say they did not vote in favor of fracking and care about public schools.

Waldman’s backers have also gone on the attack, accusing Farmer of a close relationship with his former law partner and convicted Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein.

“I can say that it shows a lack of judgment on his part,” Waldman said. “Anyone who was familiar with Scott Rothstein at the time would have known that there wasn’t something right with what Scott Rothstein was doing.”

Farmer was never implicated in Rothstein’s scheme.

Despite the back-and-forth on their records, the three candidates would prioritize the same issues in Tallahassee. All three highlighted reforming the state’s education system, expanding Medicaid and promoting women’s rights as priorities if elected.

Waldman has been campaigning for state Senate since 2012, switching to District 34 after new maps were drawn up across the state. Clarke-Reed entered the race in June 2015, while Farmer declared his candidacy in October.

District 34 is a solidly Democratic district that encompasses all of coastal Broward County.