Candidates for two Florida House of Representatives seats covering Sarasota and eastern Manatee counties appeared before the SRQ Tiger Bay Club on Thursday to field questions and state their cases for the 2022 general election.
Republican incumbents Fiona McFarland (District 72) and Tommy Gregory (District 73) squared off with Democrat challengers Derek Reich and Roberts Dameus, respectively, in a Q&A format moderated by SRQ Tiger Bay Club Board Chair Morgan Bentley. The event was held at Michaels on East in Sarasota.
McFarland is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who spent eight years on active duty and four years in the Naval Reserve. She has worked as a consultant with a global business management firm and has been a member of the state legislature since 2020. Reich, a product of Sarasota County Schools and a graduate of Florida State University, teaches social studies at Sarasota High School.
Gregory has been a member of the House of Representatives since 2018. An attorney, he is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy who served from 1990 to 1994. Dameus, a native of Haiti, is an entrepreneur and former French teacher. He is one of the founders of a political group in Haiti.
Following are excerpts from the dialogue, which have been edited for brevity and clarity.
If you could wave a magic wand to get one thing done in the legislature, what would it be?
Tommy Gregory: One thing I’d like to do would be to continue to fund infrastructure for local purposes. That means we’d put more money into Port Manatee, which is ready and overdue for expansion. They’ve done incredible work in Port Manatee, but it's time to invest some more to help the entire economy of Sarasota and Manatee counties, and also our transportation corridors. Sarasota and Manatee county commissioners are working hard to allocate resources there. If I had a magic wand I would bring back even more money than we have in the past, especially for our east-west corridors.
Roberts Dameus: The real issue is right now we have an inflation nightmare. No one can afford housing. What I would do is try to lower taxes for the first-time buyers and all of the middle class. Second, reduce taxes on gas because a lot of people cannot afford them. And also to do my best to create more jobs because right now we need valuable jobs here.”
Fiona McFarland: I would reset the property insurance market and somehow clear out the amount of risk carriers are holding right now. They've reacted to the litigious market that we have in Florida that just ratchets up the costs.
Derek Reich: The first thing is fully fund the Sadowski affordable housing fund for support of working families. Every single year for 18 years the fund has been cut by Tallahassee politicians. This is coming from someone who is a teacher, Sarasota County native, and the son of a single mother of four who was able to build and purchase a brand new home 20 years ago. That home is now worth $500,000. No single mother who is a waitress can afford that today.
The Florida budget is now over $100 billion. If the budget were to be reduced, what are you going to cut?
Dameus: I believe if we reduce taxes it's going to be the big relief for the economy. Also we can build our highways and roads if we invest in infrastructure. We must create jobs. When you build more highways, more investors will be interested in building a gas station, for example, or a convenience store. We have to add more jobs to the economy.
Gregory: Let's cut taxes on gas. Let's cut taxes everywhere we can, and there is a tax cut on gas this year. We've implemented tax cuts every year in Florida, and thankfully because Florida has a balanced budget and because your legislature and your governor embrace the free market, individual responsibility and individual ingenuity and trusting individuals to make the right choices for themselves and their families and their companies, we’re not facing the budget problems that all the other states that go the other way do. … Roughly 70% (of the state budget) goes to health care and education. Much of that money cannot be amended. So when you're talking about where the cuts are going to be, it'll be in the other 30% of the budget, which can impact many of the programs that people in this room represent.
Reich: There’s a couple of things. The new private army that Gov. DeSantis wasted a $10 million, and what we saw the news when it comes to immigration — spending $12 million and shipping people out of the state. Not only is it inhumane, it is a waste of taxpayer money.
McFarland: Tommy and I have been through this. We thought we were facing grim financial circumstances with COVID, and as I worked with many of you on the local funding we all knew that it was it was a famine year on the budget. We prepared for it. We were prepared to use the reserves a little bit. We were looking very carefully at those really big spending items across our budget. We have built the biggest reserves we’ve ever had.
How do you view the state’s role in education?
Reich: Most of my family actually used to be Republicans, and when I was growing up I used to ask them, why are you Republican? They would tell me that they believe those closest to situation are in the best place to solve it. And I always respected that answer, but that answer today is not what you're getting out of Tallahassee. It used to be that Sarasota County schools and our school board would decide what school was coming to our community. And now some of the representatives up here voted to supersede the local control and now some conservatives in Orlando and in Pensacola are going to decide what is right for you. I believe those we actually elected in Sarasota to be on our school board should decide what is going to happen in our schools and not some government bureaucrat five hours away in Tallahassee.
McFarland: I’m tremendously proud of the work that we've done on education in the past two years. Even in the feast-or-famine budget cycles we've made record investment in education. … I agree with Eric that the government closest to the people is the one that’s correct and I'm not exactly sure what he's referring to what happens at the state level, but the Department of Education sets statewide standards as accountability for the funds that we hand out to ensure that the quality of education that started at 5 years (of age) is trackable through the university system while deferring to the local school board when it comes to matters of transparency into the reading materials in the classroom or how parents engage with their teachers and the administrators.
Gregory: It’s about the parents deciding what's best for their children. Sarasota County is the perfect example. We have so many great schools here. Parents are deciding do they want their kid to go to Sarasota High School? Can they get into Pine View High School? Do they want to have Sarasota Military Academy experience? … There’s no mistaking that the Florida legislature's embrace of parental rights and parental choices for their children, understanding what's being taught and then choosing the right venue for them to get an education.
Dameus: As a former chemistry and French teacher, I'm in love with education. My answer is simple. I will reinforce the school policies that first get the parents more involved in their students’ education. And put more money more money into education. That's means more money in the library and that gives more access efficient materials.
One of the first bills that will come before the Legislature next year is constitutional carry. What is your position on it and why?
Gregory: The words of the Second Amendment are very clear: “shall not be infringed.” When you are requiring the citizens of this country to apply for a permit to exercise a constitutional right, you are infringing upon their right. That's why I support it.
Dameus: Before we have access, we have to have heavy background checks because a lot of criminals out there can go to a gun shop and get a gun. There are a lot of crazy people as well, so I think it’s very necessary to have a heavy background check for those people and to see if they’re not crazy.
Reich: I am pro-good gun ownership. My stepfather has a conceal carry permit and he is a Republican. He is from New York, where he also has a conceal carry permit, and it simply blows his mind as someone who's a Republican and very pro-gun rights that you can walk in take one class and get a conceal carry these days. I would love people who are well trained to have a weapon, but when you give it out like candy to anyone that attended one class, it's insane.
McFarland: I'm a big supporter of the Second Amendment, but also my training the Navy left me with a healthy respect for firearms. And I believe that every law-abiding citizen has that same premise to begin with. We need to give our law enforcement the tools they need to make sure that guns stay out of the hands of non law-abiding citizens. If someone is complying with those laws and the rules, that is a conversation we ought to have.
What is your position on the legislatively approved ban on abortion after 15 weeks?
McFarland: The Supreme Court has thrust this issue directly into focus on state level. I consider myself to be pro life. I respect that many people have a range of different opinions and that there is a tremendous amount of emotion that goes into this issue. We passed a law that would disallow termination of pregnancy after 15 weeks of gestational age, with exceptions for cases where the health and life of the mother was at risk or fatal fetal abnormality and the baby would not survive. I supported that bill.
Reich: As someone who has a 17-year-old sister and a 17-year-old niece, the government has absolutely no business taking away the freedom of a woman to control her body. I had a 17-year-old student come to me, and I was the very first person she told that she was raped. I could not imagine being the state and saying, God forbid, if you're pregnant, you're going to have to carry the pregnancy of your rapist to term. She voting to take away the sovereignty that a rape victim has to control her own body after a rape victim had just had that taken away.