Navigating the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature and getting bills passed is the most challenging task facing a Democrat at the state capital. But this year's redistricting -- intended to eliminate districts gerrymandered for political advantage -- has created greater interest among Florida Keys candidates in the District 39 state Senate seat. State Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West, and property rights advocate Sal Gutierrez have both filed as Democrats in that race.
In the Aug. 14 primary, Saunders and Gutierrez face state Rep. Dwight Bullard of South Miami-Dade, whose mother is the incumbent, and former Miami-Dade Rep. James Bush III.
The Keys and South Florida district they seek to represent now also covers Lee, Collier and Hardy counties. The representative from that district will be expected to pass legislation that protects the Keys and South Florida from over-development and bring in state funding for road, bridge, wastewater and other infrastructure projects.
Saunders, who is the House minority leader, says he is best suited to handle the job. He has served the longest and built relationships with his Republican colleagues. He cites his ties to House Appropriations chair Denise Grimsley, who helped the Keys secure $50 million in wastewater funds this year. She also is running for state Senate, in another district. Saunders says he also has developed a good relationship with House Rep. Matt Hudson, who represents Collier and Broward counties.
Saunders cites the facts that he repeatedly has been elected in a Republican-dominated county, and his former legislative aide, Holly Raschein, is running for his House seat as a Republican.
"I can talk the talk and walk the walk with Republicans," Saunders said. "They are the ones who helped us get the wastewater money."
However, Bullard is no stranger to state politics and the inner workings of government. He grew up in state politics, with both his mother, Larcenia, and father, Edward, serving in state offices. He says he understands that there is a way to get things done and work with Republicans without having to "compromise your integrity, morals and ideals."
Bullard has been the representative for the 118th House district since 2008, a seat that previously was held by his father. The House district covers a narrow stretch of South Miami-Dade County from Florida City to Richmond Heights.
Bullard, a teacher who lives in Richmond Heights, says the "majority does fall in the middle," and the Legislature is not as polarized as one would think -- but they do "shift and swing." He says success comes from talking and having good relationships with the chiefs of staff, committee clerks and staff attorneys.
"I know enough about the inner workings of Tallahassee," Bullard said. "You have to work multiple angles. ... I have been up here long enough to get things done, and I think I work well with the other side."
Gutierrez doesn't have experience in public office, but he says he could cross party lines "in order to get things done."
Gutierrez challenged Saunders once before, in 2006, in a race for Saunders' House seat. Gutierrez, running as a Republican, captured about 14 percent of the votes in a four-way Republican primary.
The state issue that likely most impacts the Keys is windstorm insurance coverage. The state's insurer of last resort, Citizens Property Insurance Corp., has steadily increased premiums while reducing coverage. Most recently, the company has stopped offering coverage to owners of second homes and short-term rental properties. It also has ceased offering policies on coastal properties with replacement values of more than $1 million.
Saunders says he is extremely knowledgeable on the issue, as he has worked with Fair Insurance Rates in Monroe (FIRM) in recent years to cap rates and has urged Citizens to adopt a new computer model to more accurately project storm damage.
"I think the rates are too high," Saunders said. "I will continue to fight for lower rates."
Gutierrez also says he is familiar with the rate issue, as he owns multiple properties and regularly deals with Citizens.
"I think each county should have its own insurance," he said. "It should be done on a county-by-county basis. We should be rewarded for our building strengths."
Bullard says that while he might not be in the Keys, he is no stranger to insurance issues.
"Eighty-five percent of my constituents are covered by Citizens," he said. "One constituent saw his rates increase by $2,000. Citizens is more sound than they say, and there doesn't need to be these huge rate increases."
Rep. Bush did not return multiple phone messages requesting an interview for this story.