Happytown: Saunders vs. Peña 

Democrat Joe Saunders faces Republican opponent Marco Peña in the race for newly drawn state House District 49

As the shattering horizon of Election Day approaches, we've been doing – and will continue to do – our best to focus on the individual races that are most likely to make a solid dent in your repossessed life. We're calling them "Whistlestops," because we're quaint like that, and we're reaching out to both Republican and Democratic candidates who can stand the sight of us. Some, admittedly, cannot.

We kicked off last week with congressional hopefuls Todd Long (who now wants to make Puerto Rico a state) and Alan Grayson (who is "very disappointed" in us), though neither returned phone calls from our persistent scribe.

This week brings a very special (even somewhat gay, coincidentally!) episode of Whistlestops – so special, in fact, that we're yanking it up into our standard Happytown™ pleasure hole, sans snark – in which we explore the dynamics of yet another newly drawn district, Florida House District 49, out by the University of Central Florida.

Perhaps having something to do with the East Orlando district's proximity to various educational portals, what sets the District 49 stakes apart from most is its youth. The race is a textbook study on the current ideologies of the left (equal rights, health care, middle-class jobs) and the right (business interests, bootstraps, budget cuts).

Joe Saunders, a 29-year-old community organizer who's worked with groups like Equality Florida and Planned Parenthood, frequently drops the word "holistic" into discussions about how he will deal with issues facing the legislature. On education, he says that "some charter schools do a great job," though he is vehemently opposed to the so-called parent-trigger education initiative, which allows parents with kids enrolled in struggling public schools to take control of them and potentially even convert them into charter schools. Florida's parent-trigger bill was narrowly defeated in the state Senate but is expected to come back in next year's legislative session. He believes that public education is a constitutional right, and sees much of the Republican supermajority's emphasis on "reform" through privatization and budget slashes as "really scary." A proponent of arts education – he co-chaired the Osceola Arts for a Complete Education Coalition – Saunders opposes the tendency of Florida counties to redline extracurricular and arts programs in favor of teaching to the test.

On other issues, Saunders walks a similarly common sense-driven line. He's for more accountability when it comes to the tax incentives so freely lavished upon big businesses in Florida. He can't understand Republicans' unwillingness to expand Medicaid in the state, especially considering that the expansion is free under the Federal Affordable Care Act through 2020. "Your war with [President] Obama should not be fought on the backs of Floridians," he says. "Either you are ready to help these families or you are not." In short, he's measured and confident in political discourse, a sort of sure-footed balance he says he gained from a "head start" in battling a contentious primary with civil rights attorney Shayan Elahi. (Elahi has since endorsed Saunders.)

And though it's not a direct focus of Saunders' campaign, a victory in District 49 would make him only the second gay person elected to the state House of Representatives.

"In 2012, any Democrat that's elected is going to have to hold the line," he says of the large and looming Republican legislative wall he'll face should he make it to Tallahassee. But Saunders is no stranger to knocking on the doors of the opposition. "I have a knack for going to places that I think are really hostile. People's stories change people's minds. There's going to be room for that."

There's also going to be plenty of room for business-minded upstarts like 32-year-old Republican Marco Peña.

Peña's résumé is the stuff of Republican legend, served with a side of identity politics. Following a two-year stint as UCF's student government president (during which he claims to have "saved" the Bright Futures scholarship), Peña climbed the corporate ladders of Office Depot and Target; he has since moved on to the medical field, serving as a development officer for Florida Hospital. He's a devout Catholic who clings to his Puerto Rican roots with scripted nods to the "hard work" ethic he learned from his grandparents. The large Hispanic population of District 49 will likely share his values, he says, because, well, he looks like them.

A quick behind-the-scenes moment for you: No matter how hard you try, you're not going to get Peña to talk to the Weekly. We tried at least five times. Fortunately, he didn't stand up the Orlando Sentinel editorial board on Sept. 26, so we were able to get some sense of what the mysterious Republican is about by streaming the interviews live over our laptop.

Even without a firsthand interview, Peña's relative political avarice was apparent in the Sentinel editorial-board grilling. When questioned about the parent-trigger bill, he retorted, "I like to refer to that as the parent empowerment bill," before segueing into a personal endorsement of the controversial new film Won't Back Down. Worse, when Saunders made a point about teachers not being in their careers to become millionaires, Peña suggested that anybody could become wealthy if they merely read The Millionaire Next Door. References to "Six Sigma" as means of addressing governmental efficiency weren't far behind.

But cornered on more salient issues involving his community, Peña visibly swayed toward the middle. "Government shouldn't be in the business of picking winners," he said when questioned about big business incentives, though those incentives were largely doled out by his Republican forebears. On health care – a field with which he is very familiar – he could only muster platitudes like, "There are a lot of tough problems we need to solve in our medical care system."

Throughout, Peña seemed stuck between a rock and a hard line. It's a syndrome that Saunders is quick to point out. While Democrats in state races have been able to amplify their messages following the primary, many Republicans have been forced to "modulate" or "pivot" toward the center after racing to the right. In the case of House District 49, that shape-shifting is imperative; the district leans Democratic by 10 percent, and even Peña's hope of pulling Hispanic voters is diminished by the fact that a majority of Hispanics in Florida are also Democrats.

"In order for him to win, he has to win Democrats," says Saunders, bluntly. And in order for him to do that, the moneyed business interests are going to have to spend a lot of cash creating a quick, sellable narrative.


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