Kathleen Oropeza of Fund Education Now is one of the state’s leading education activists.
She reports here on two crucial races for the State Legislature. In one contest, public education advocate Mike Clelland narrowly beat the future leader of the House, even though the Republican incumbent had a 12-1 funding advantage. In the other race, elementary school teacher Karen Castor Dentel handily beat her opponent, who ran a disgusting ad comparing her to convicted sexual predator Jerry Sandusky.

Kathleen writes:

On Election Day, Floridians stared down deliberate suppression and waited long hours to vote. These patriots didn’t just stand in line, they stood for democracy. In fact, Florida voters repeatedly chose authentic underfunded citizen-candidates over incumbents flush with PAC millions. The most powerful example is District 29 which many assumed would remain the property of the designated 2014 Speaker of the House Rep. Chris Dorworth. Challenger Mike Clelland, an attorney and former fire-fighter did his homework, studied the issues and walked his district every day convincing voters to give him a chance. He spent $70,000 on his campaign. His support came in hard-earned $10s and $20s sent by fellow firefighters and citizens who believed in him. In contrast, Chris Dorworth was given over $1 million dollars to keep his seat, including $300,000 the week before the election.

By early Wednesday morning, after hours of ups and downs, Mike Clelland was still standing on a tiny stack of 37 votes. An audible gasp could be heard as Dorworth’s party realized that the years of planning, the millions invested in campaigns and their strategy to transform him into a powerful Speaker of the House was dead on arrival. Provisional ballots were counted and regular ballots were counted again. Almost a week later on Monday night, Clelland defeated Dorworth by 146 out of nearly 74,000 votes cast – 50.1 percent to 49.9 percent. After more than 2 decades of blatant pay to play politics, just enough voters of every political stripe took down one of the most highly groomed future leaders in recent Florida history.

In a similar upset, District 30 went to Karen Castor Dentel, a 4th grade teacher, mom and the daughter of former Florida Secretary of Education, Betty Castor. Dentel solidly defeated Rep. Scott Plakon, the sponsor of Florida’s Amendment 8, an ALEC effort to rescind the “no-aid” language found in 30 state constitutions so religious schools could be funded by tax dollars. Amendment 8 failed.

Overall, politicians placed 11 wordy constitutional amendments on Florida’s ballot. Florida voters of every party saw the political agenda behind these initiatives and voted no on 8 out of 11 amendments.

Across the state voters repeatedly chose to put balance back into Florida politics. Though both houses are still under single-party rule, they no longer have the absolute power of the supermajority. Democrats picked up 5 House seats with Republicans still in a 76-44 majority. In the Senate, Democrats picked up 2 seats with Republicans out numbering them 26-14.

Clearly, Florida voters have more work to do. Still, Election Day sent a clear message: Florida voters are awake and watching now. It is imperative that the common sense Republicans, Democrats and Independents make the choice to reach across the aisle and work together for the people back home. Those who don’t will face the voters in 2014. Thanks to what happened in District 29, that promise now has some teeth.

Kathleen Oropeza