Debate Run By High Schooler Highlights Florida Senate District

Aug 24, 2016

The Aug. 30 election will be  the first to host elections in  the newly redrawn state and federal congressional districts.

Tuesday night, candidates for the redrawn Florida Senate District 38 debated each other on where they stand on various issues from how they feel about aerial mosquito spraying in light of the Zika outbreak to the increase in property insurance rates and the merits of increasing the minimum wage. The debate was organized by Benjamin Burstein, president of Unified Democracy, a political action committee dedicated to getting more young people involved in the civic process.

The newly redrawn Florida Senate District 38.

In addition to hosting the debate, this was Burstein’s first week of senior year at Miami Beach High School, where the debate was held. (See WLRN's coverage of Burstein's work at the Democratic presidential debate in Miami in March.)

“This is a lot,” Burstein admitted with a chuckle. “For the entire summer I worked. So, it would be a lot of days of working 8 to 6 and then from 6 to 12 trying to plan this event.”

According to Burstein, all seven candidates said they were going to come, but only four showed.

“Well, I would have liked the other three candidates that said they would come to have actually come,” said Burstein. “I think the four candidates that we did have had a great discussion of the issues. So what policies they support will definitely give our voters a tough choice to make when they go to the ballots over the next week.”

Benjamin Burstein moderates the debate at Miami Beach Senior High School.
Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN

The candidates who showed up were Kevin Burns, former mayor of North Miami; Don Festge, a high school teacher; Michael Gongora, a former Miami Beach commissioner, and Jason Pizzo a former assistant state attorney.

Two podiums for Anis Blemur and Phillip Brutus were left empty on the stage. Daphne Campbell, a representative in the Florida House, was also absent from the debate.  The four who attended plus Blemur and Campbell are all Democrats and will face each other in the Aug. 30 primary.  The winner will face Brutus, a former Democratic state representative who is running as a no-party candidate, in the Nov. 8 general election. No Republican filed to run in the district.

Most of the four present, who spent two hours articulating their positions, admitted there wasn’t a whole lot of difference in their views on the issues. They did, however, hold up experience or passion as what set them apart in their ability to get things done up in Tallahassee.