Sun Sentinel: To pack punch in Florida Senate District 34, Democrats should pick Gary Farmer

by Sun Sentinel Editorial Board

The Florida Senate's most expensive and contentious Democratic primary features three qualified candidates eager to represent the newly redrawn District 34, which covers the east-side communities of Broward County, from Deerfield Beach to Hollywood.

Two are veteran state representatives who make compelling cases for a promotion.

But it's the third candidate, trial attorney and political novice Gary Farmer, who would be the game-changer for Democrats in the Florida Senate.

Though he's never held public office, Farmer, the founding partner of a law firm that specializes in consumer protection litigation, is no stranger to Tallahassee. He is a former president of the Florida Justice Association, which represents trial lawyers and often the interests of consumers.

Farmer, 52, has spent years working the legislative process from the outside, fighting against limits on medical malpractice awards and worker's compensation payouts. He's also fought for the environment and against government giveaways.

He knows how to build coalitions with both parties and is a master at strategy. This is important because when you're a member of the Legislature's minority party, knowing the rules is key.

Farmer's strongest opponent is former state Rep. Jim Waldman, 58, the in-house general counsel at Keiser University and a former mayor of Coconut Creek. Waldman was a solid representative before term limits ended his House run two years ago.

Waldman's colleagues view him as a deep thinker, a good listener and a strong advocate of the public's right to know. They say he's closer to the center than Farmer, but a "good Democrat" who can think like a Republican and has House leadership experience.

Waldman says he knows the rules, too, and how to keep bad things from happening. He also has fought for the expansion of Medicaid, a woman's right to choose and more money for education.

Still — and Waldman would argue with this — he wasn't seen as a standout lawmaker. But in all honesty, it's hard to be particularly effective when you're in the minority party.

The third candidate is Rep. Gwendolyn "Gwyn" Clarke-Reed, 75, who faces term limits in the House this year. Clarke-Reed has been an advocate for education and for helping students who break minor laws get civil citations rather than arrest records. She's stood up for voters' rights and funding for hospital districts, but has not served in her party's leadership. She's a reliable Democrat, but again, not a standout.

It is Farmer who exudes the energy in this race, the kind of shot-in-the-arm swagger that Democrats sorely need after so many years of being in the minority in Tallahassee. He has the potential to be the leadership voice lacking since Dan Gelber and Ted Deutch left the Senate.

During their joint endorsement interview with the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board, Waldman said Farmer is so slick, "he's convinced me of stuff I wouldn't have voted for." He didn't mean it as a compliment, but it was an honest acknowledgment of Farmer's persuasive abilities.

Farmer is running a no-holds-barred campaign. His mailers have criticized Clarke-Reed and Waldman for having hurt public schools by supporting the corporate tax scholarship, which lets low-income students attend private schools. Clarke-Reed says her district "has kids that need to go to these schools." Waldman says these vouchers also save public schools money. "This is a choice. It gives kids a chance to succeed."

Neither will Farmer let go of claims that Waldman received an A rating from the NRA. The fact-checking website Politifact investigated and found the grade had been incorrectly posted on the group's website. However, the NRA says it has never considered Waldman a supporter and, in fact, grades him a D. Still, Farmer comes armed with screenshots and argues that he will best stand up to the NRA.

Farmer also criticizes Waldman for supporting the NRA's so-called "Pop-Tart bill," filed after a Maryland student chewed a Pop Tart into the shape of a gun and was sent home from school. The bill prohibits Florida school principals from enforcing zero-tolerance gun policies against students who play with simulated weapons. Waldman says it gives school administrators some discretion, a good thing. Farmer says it prohibits principals from enforcing a school's code of conduct. On balance, we thought the bill was an overreaction, especially since such silliness has not occurred in Florida.

Farmer also picks on Waldman for supporting legislation to protect Floridians from prosecution if they fire a warning shot in self-defense, a bill criticized as an extension of the Stand Your Ground law. Again, there's no perfect answer here, but we agree with Waldman that minimum mandatory sentences — in this case, for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon — are problematic. Judges need some discretion in dealing with people who fire warning shots, especially since the Stand Your Ground law would let them go scot-free if they instead shoot to kill.

In turn, Waldman notes that Farmer once worked with convicted Ponzi scammer Scott Rothstein. Farmer worked at the firm for 11 months, co-operated with investigators and was never accused of wrongdoing.

Waldman also notes that Farmer has given money to Republicans. Farmer says his firm has donated to moderate Republicans, the cost of doing business with a GOP-dominated Legislature. "But I haven't voted for fracking, or vouchers," he countered.

Other differences are apparent, too.

On red-light cameras, Waldman and Clarke-Reed support allowing local governments to ticket motorists for violations, while Farmer opposes the involvement of a private vendor who profits from the citations.

Waldman and Clarke-Reed also support Enterprise Florida, the state's economic development arm that awards certain companies incentives to move to Florida. Farmer calls it "corporate welfare" and says the money could better be used to assist needy Floridians.

If elected, Farmer said he would sponsor legislation to ban assault-style weapons in Florida and eliminate the gun-show loophole. While such bills stand no chance of passage, we agree it's important to keep the debate front and center every year.

Farmer, of Parkland, doesn't live in the newly drawn district now represented by Sen. Maria Sachs, who is not running for re-election. But he notes that he works in the district, previously lived there and has plans to move there.

Waldman says he recently moved into a Lauderdale-by-the-Sea apartment. Only Clarke-Reed, who's raised the least amount of money in this high-rollers race, has long lived in the district.

This race has seen plenty of mudslinging, including Waldman's attempts to tie Farmer to Gov. Rick Scott, when few would confuse Farmer for a conservative.

Now it's time for voters to sift through the claims and decide who would best represent Broward.

This race features three good people. But in the end, we believe Florida's bluest county needs a stronger, more persuasive voice in Tallahassee.

Gary Farmer would best make Broward's presence felt.

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