Gayle Harrell has been a Florida lawmaker for nearly 20 years. Corinna Balderramos Robinson has worked in the Army, on Capitol Hill and in private business for 25 years.
Each says she has the right kind of experience to tackle the big issues facing the Florida Legislature, including the coronavirus pandemic and fallout over schools, businesses, joblessness, the crumbling economy and residents’ health.
Voters will decide Nov. 3 who belongs in the Florida Senate District 25 seat, representing Martin, St. Lucie and northwest Palm Beach counties.
“These are very difficult times,” said Harrell, a first-term incumbent Republican from Stuart who spent 14 years in the Florida House. “We’ve never been through a pandemic like this. It’s having a devastating impact on the health of our people and creating a huge economic problem. We need a senator with experience to deal with these problems.”
Balderramos Robinson, the Democratic challenger and political newcomer from Port St. Lucie, said she’s in a position to work across the aisle and get things done.
“I’ve commanded a military police unit in Iraq,” she said. “When I was legislative director in Iraq, I worked with people from different countries. On Capitol Hill, I worked with Democrats and Republicans on bipartisan issues to protect our nation. I think I can work with legislators from both parties in Tallahassee.”
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Harrell noted Balderramos Robinson moved to the district in May.
“She comes from Boca Raton and South Dakota,” Harrell said. “Does she really know us? Does she know our community? We need a senator who knows our community.”
Balderramos Robinson said she’s a fast learner, and not a carpetbagger.
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“I haven’t lived in the district as long as she has,” Balderramos Robinson said. “But I will do my research. I’m doing it every day, talking to business people, to teachers to first responders. I know how to put in the work.”
Harrell has amassed a campaign war chest of over $300,000, about 25 times Balderramos Robinson’s campaign contributions of less than $13,000.
Balderramos Robinson said Harrell’s contributions — from businesses, business associations and political action committees — show Harrell “is wedded to special interests.”
Harrell countered the contributions show “a lot of people across the state appreciate the work, the long-term commitment I’ve made to my district and to Florida.”
Balderramos Robinson said the Legislature in 2021 needs to build on the Clean Waterways Act, a wide-ranging environmental bill approved in the 2020 session.
The law, she said, “should be just the beginning. The areas where it’s lacking need to be addressed.”
More: Florida Senate approves Clean Waterways Act
The South Florida Water Management District needs more money to accomplish its water quality projects, she said, although the funds will be hard to find given the state’s budget constraints, especially in the wake of the coronavirus.
“Some of the money could come from increased penalties and fines on polluters,” she said. “We need to make sure regulations are enforced.”
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Harrell said the Legislature’s priority “needs to be making sure there’s continuing funding for the EAA reservoir.” The Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir Project approved in the 2017 legislative session to help curb harmful Lake Okeechobee discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.
Toxic algae has also fouled the Indian River Lagoon and Atlantic beaches.
More: Army Corps action could delay completion of EAA Reservoir Project
Harrell also called for “making sure the Corps of Engineers does their share” of the project. The federal and state governments are splitting the estimated $1.6 billion cost.
“I’ve worked with the Corps before,” Balderramos Robinson said. “They are the Army Corps of Engineers after all. We need the Corps, but we need them to be more transparent about how what they do contributes to our pollution problems.”
Harrell touted the Legacy Florida legislation she sponsored in 2015, which she said has pumped nearly $1.3 billion into Everglades restoration, particularly projects designed to stop harmful Lake O discharges.
Balderramos Robinson said Harrell has “done some good work on water issues, but I don’t think she’s put her heart and soul into protecting the environment. … She’s not being a leader, being out there fighting for us.”
Harrell column: Legacy Florida will be a game-changer
Harrell said she’s been an effective legislator by working behind the scenes, such as inserting language in the Clean Waterways Act to allocate $25 million for Indian River Lagoon water quality improvements.
She said she’s also inserted language into other legislators’ bills that benefit her Treasure Coast constituents.
“I don’t need my name on top of a bill,” Harrell said. “I just need to know I’m getting things done. The results are what matter.”
“I have years and years of experience in the military and am trained in emergency management,” said Balderramos Robinson, who has a doctorate in homeland security management. “We need to do our very best to protect people.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis should have called a special legislative session to address the pandemic, both curtailing its spread and dealing with the economic problems it is causing businesses and the government, Balderramos Robinson said.
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Harrell, president and CEO of Health Strategies LLC, touted her 30 years of experience in healthcare. Her company helps doctors, hospitals and labs implement health information technology and electronic health records.
“I’m the chairwoman of the Senate Health Policy Committee,” she added. “I have the experience to understand what to do.”
Harrell cited the telehealth legislation she sponsored in 2019 to establish guidelines for healthcare providers to offer some services, such as prescribing drugs, electronically.
“If that bill had not been there, providers would not have been able to do the telehealth work they’ve been doing over the last six months during the pandemic,” Harrell said.
Issue: Post-virus economy
Balderramos Robinson said the Legislature will “be especially challenged by budget constraints just when so many small businesses will need help. We may have to consider new taxes unless we can find a way to redirect money from other endeavors.”
Because small businesses are being particularly hard hit by the pandemic, Balderramos Robinson said legislators should “look at the corporate tax system to make sure big businesses that can afford it are pulling their fair share.”
More: Treasure Coast governments, schools brace for impact of COVID-19
Harrell said her approach would be exactly the opposite.
“The first thing we must not do is raise taxes,” Harrell said. “Instead, we need to prioritize, which means some things may not get done and some may be postponed.”
More people are used to working from home now, Harrell said, “so maybe the state doesn’t need to rent as much office space. Maybe agencies go another year with the cars and trucks they have instead of buying new ones. And maybe there’s a little waste here and there that can be cut.”
More: Search list of Florida businesses receiving coronavirus-related help
To jump-start the economy, Harrell said, “we start with small businesses, which are the bulk of businesses in Florida. We need to encourage entrepreneurship. We also look at tourism and for ways to bring outside money into the state. So let’s look for opportunities to bring new business into the state.”
State senators earn an annual salary of $29,697. Terms typically are for four years, but because Senate districts will be reconfigured based on this year’s U.S. Census, Harrell and Balderramos Robinson are vying for a two-year seat.
Florida legislators assume office Nov. 3 and are sworn in two weeks later.
- Age: 77
- Political history: Represented Florida House District 81 from 2000-08 and from 2010-12; ran unsuccessfully for U.S. House District 16 in 2008; represented reconfigured House District 83 from 2012-18; elected to Senate District 25 in 2018.
- Education: Bachelor’s in Spanish, master’s in Latin American studies, University of Florida
- Work history: Business manager, medical practice of late husband, Dr. James E. Harrell; founder/CEO, Breast Imaging Center Inc.; high school Spanish teacher, Martin County School District; Latin American history instructor, Indian River Community College.
Corinna Balderramos Robinson
- Age: 55
- Political history: 2014, ran unsuccessfully for U.S. House in South Dakota home state
- Military history: Enlisted in Army at 17; retired as major; two combat tours in Iraq; commanded paratroopers providing immediate response to 9/11 terrorist attack on Pentagon and support to combat operations in Afghanistan
- Current occupation: Founder and CEO, On Mission LLC, which specializes in national security and defense consulting for the federal Department of Defense; director of criminal justice program at Keiser University’s West Palm Beach campus
- Work history: Civilian legislative affairs director in Iraq in 2010 with GS-15 rank equivalent to Army colonel; led the Anti-Terrorism & Force Protection Directorate at the Pentagon
- Education: Doctorate in homeland security management from Colorado Technical University; master’s in public policy from Georgetown University; master’s in criminal justice from Chaminade University in Hawaii.
Tyler Treadway is an environment reporter who specializes in issues facing the Indian River Lagoon. Support his work on TCPalm.com. Contact him at 772-221-4219 and [email protected]