James Call, Tallahassee Democrat
Democratic state Rep. Loranne Ausley is looking to move to the Senate for the seat being vacated by term-limited Sen. Bill Montford. Marva Harris Preston is running to flip that same seat that has always been held by a Democrat into the Republican column.
Preston is a retired police officer who returned home to Wakulla County after 27 years as a law enforcement officer in Miami. Senate Republicans are spending a big bundle of cash to support her campaign and block Ausley.
Ausley, a Tallahassee native, represented the city in the Florida House from 2000 to 2008, then returned to the House in 2016. In six House races she never received fewer than 55% of the vote, garnered more than 80% of the vote twice and ran for reelection unopposed twice.
The sprawling district runs from Perry in the East, around the Big Bend and takes in Leon County as it stretches across the Panhandle to Port. St. Joe.
Montford has held the seat since it was redrawn after the 2010 Census. Both Democrat Hillary Clinton and Andrew Gillum carried the district during the 2016 presidential and 2018 gubernatorial elections.
A Tallahassee Democrat and League of Women Voters candidate forum with the two revealed differences on Medicaid expansion, public education, abortion rights and other issues.
Here are some questions the candidates addressed. The responses have been edited for clarity and space.
Voters in Senate District 3 have received flyers in the mail that Loranne Ausley wrongly took federal Paycheck Protection Program money from the Democratic Party to finance her campaign. Ausley calls the advertisement a blatant lie. Ms. Preston, explain your allegation.
Preston: I look at it like this; when an allegation comes forth whether we believe it or not we have an obligation to investigate. We have an obligation to find out the truth. And sometimes finding out the truth means asking hard questions. It means making people accountable. And that’s what this is all about. I believe what I’ve seen that yes, the Party took the money. And yes, the money made its way to places where it was not supposed to be.
Ausley: These types of lies and distractions takes us away from what the real issues are. … My campaign has not accepted any PPP money. The Orlando Sentinel has said as much because this is happening around the state to three Senate candidates. The Party did take the money. We condemned it at the time. They gave the money back. Our campaigns did not receive any money, and this is another page from the Trump playbook of lies and distractions because they don’t want to talk about the issues.
Gov. Ron DeSantis and the incoming House Speaker and Senate President have outlined a broad proposal to crack down on civil unrest nationally stemming from the deaths of unarmed people while in police custody. If elected, would you support the proposal?
Ausley: First of all, let me say, I support law enforcement and law enforcement supports me. I have the support of PBA (Police Benevolence Association), the FOP (Fraternal Order of Police), the firefighters. I do not support defunding the police. But let’s be clear, this proposed legislation that was rolled out at a press conference the other day and is simply another page from the Trump playbook. It is meant to divide us with the politics of fear and sending people into their corners when we need to be building trust. Trust has been lost between law enforcement and our communities and we need to be doing things that builds that back. This is just driving a wedge … This is an election year stunt.
Preston: As a 27-year law enforcement officer I took an oath a long time ago that my fundamental duty is to serve mankind, to serve my community. And in serving my community that means protecting my community. Make sure that people are safe as they go to work, they go to school, they go to church. … There is a definite difference between civil unrest and riot, and protest. We have to clearly define what those things are. The governor has come forward with actions to take against people who are trying to destroy our homes, to destroy our communities and destroy the history of not only this state and our communities but this country. I stand for everything that law enforcement has brought to the table.
What actions if any would you take to increase accountability among private schools that accept state vouchers (scholarships) for students?
Preston: If there is a specific school that is not accountable then you hold that school, but I don’t think that we group all private, all charter, all magnet schools together as not being accountable. I see kids every day. Had they not been afforded the opportunity to go to a school out of their district, out of their neighborhood, they would not have had the education. I believe that we individually hold each school accountable, but we don’t lump all of them together and say they are not accountable for the dollars they are getting.
Ausley: For 20 years, Florida has diverted money from traditional public schools to charter and private schools all in the name of choice. I am the first to say that parents deserve choices. But I don’t believe that choice should come at the expense of our public schools. None of these (voucher) programs are held to the same standard of accountability as our traditional public schools and I believe that is wrong. Any school that is receiving public dollars, through a voucher, a tax credit program, any mechanism, should be held to the same accountability as a traditional public school. It is a death of a thousand cuts to our public schools as we continue to sign this money away.
The Florida unemployment compensation system offers the smallest payments for the least amount of time in the country. The outgoing chairs of the House and Senate Appropriations committees both say that is not good enough. Do you agree, and if so, what is to be done?
Ausley: The system created under Gov. Scott, not under Gov. DeSantis, was designed to fail. It was designed so that the numbers would look low. … The system is broken. But we had an opportunity to take advantage of an additional (federal) $300 a week but (DeSantis) said, ‘we don’t want that.’ I would like for him to explain how a Floridian who makes $275 a week (in unemployment) because they lost their job through no fault of their own, how are they going to make ends meet? To me, that is unacceptable. We need to do everything we can to support working Floridians and those out of work through no fault of their own.
Preston: I know people. I talk to people. I live among people. I work among people who are affected by unemployment. When we look at the problems we are having, I say we don’t point a finger at one another. There is an opportunity to address this with our governor. There is an opportunity to make known some of the needs that people have. When I heard the numbers that were given, there are people that live at that level every day. And I do understand when people are out of a job and they need to take care of their families. I have been there with them … Each person in the community (should) not sit around and complain about what we don’t have but make the best of our resources.
The Sadowski Trust Fund was set up to help build affordable housing for Floridians. But billions of dollars provided by a tax on real estate transactions has been diverted away from the original mission. Would you support a mandate that all money raised by the documentary stamp tax for the trust fund be used only for affordable housing?
Preston: If monies were taken from the citizens of this state for a specific reason and they were not given (to) that reason but for something else … (then) somebody needs to be held accountable. Someone needs to say why this was done.
Ausley: I can tell Ms. Preston, from looking at this with her detective mind, is right. The people who have been diverting the money from the Housing Trust Fund is the Republican leadership of the Party. This was a promise that was made. People came together and said we have such a grave need for affordable housing in our state that we are willing to give up a portion of the stamp document revenue to create this fund and year, after year, after year, as the need continues to grow the Republican leadership takes that money to use for other purposes.