PASCO COUNTY, Fla. — With longtime GOP legislator Tom Lee stepping down unexpectedly from his Senate District 20 seat this year, the race to replace him features former Pasco County GOP House member Danny Burgess and writer and disability-rights advocate Democrat Kathy Lewis.
Burgess has always been somewhat of a political phenom. He was elected to the city council in his hometown of Zephyrhills at the age of 18, and was reelected two years later.
After the mayor of Zephyrhills resigned due to a scandal in 2013, Burgess ran in a special election to succeed him and won.
In 2014, at the age of 28, he won a seat in the Florida House, and was re-elected in 2016 and 2018. In December of 2018, he stepped down from his seat after Gov. Ron DeSantis selected him to head the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs.
Which is where he was working when he learned in late May that Lee was stepping down with two years left in his term. Burgess said that he then began hearing from a lot of people in the community who called on him to run for the Senate seat.
“It wasn’t an easy decision, because I absolutely loved what I was doing,” Burgess told Spectrum Bay News 9. But he also said that he believes that he’s ready and willing to represent the district (which encompasses parts of his native Pasco County, along with parts of Hillsborough and a slice of Polk County).
“People need leadership now more than ever, and they need individuals who understand their needs as a community and can help get things done at the state level,” he said about why he wants to return to the Legislature.
Burgess is going up against Lewis, a self-avowed “angry mom” who was so fed up with the bureaucracy in Tallahassee when it came to accessing medical benefits for her disabled daughter that she decided to run for political office two years ago and ended up getting 46.5 percent of the vote against Lee, a much better known GOP lawmaker who raised a substantial amount more money than she did.
Lewis said she only got the benefits that she had been seeking for her daughter after sending off an email to then Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. His office’s interest finally drew the attention of health department officials in Florida and prompted them to act.
Lewis grew up in Baltimore, where she said she survived poverty and a culture of gun violence. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University, she said that experience has imbued her with a particular set of life skills that she carries with her.
“I know how to get things done against insurmountable odds," she said. "I know how to do it in a caring and fearless way.”
Lewis links her own troubles accessing the state’s health care system with the problems that hundreds of thousands of Floridians encountered earlier this year trying to file for unemployment through the state’s website, which melted down after it received an onslaught of claims following the economic fallout from the coronavirus.
“I’ve had several voters tell me … they finally really get it,” she said in connecting her plight regarding fighting for her daughter and the state’s unemployment website problems. “Because it seems to be a problem not just in the disability health care world, but just accessing any benefits within the state of Florida.”
As those problems with the unemployment website mounted, several state Democratic lawmakers called on GOP leaders to schedule a special legislative session to deal with the problem. But Burgess dismisses that as “a good sound bite.”
“It doesn’t take a special session to get up there and get what needs to be done,” he said.
Burgess acknowledges that the state’s unemployment website “was an abject failure” but said that an additional part of the story is how corrective steps were ultimately taken by DeSantis to repair the damage.
“The reality is there has been massive improvements and there will continue to be massive improvements,” he said.
One policy issue that the two candidates disagree strongly about is on the issue of expanding Medicaid. Florida is one of only twelve states that still hasn’t done that, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Burgess voted against that proposal when he was in the Florida House.
“It could have been unbelievably detrimental to our state’s budget when the federal government inevitably started to roll back their contribution and matching funds to this program,” he said.
Burgess said he prefers a block grant-like system where the states get a set amount of Medicaid funding from the feds.
And he touts his own “direct primary care” legislation that allows physicians to bill patients and collect payments in advance of providing care without having to obtain an insurance license.
The bill was passed and signed into law by then Gov. Rick Scott after the 2018 session.
Lewis said that she doesn’t understand why GOP lawmakers oppose expanding Medicaid.
“We’re talking about people’s lives,” she said. “Particularly with COVID-19 and people losing their jobs, which is tied to health care. I mean, we have to help people when they’re in trouble. That’s what government’s for. To help people.”
The question of whether this seat can be won by Lewis has been a point of contention inside the Florida Democratic Party.
While control of the Florida Senate has been held by Republicans in Tallahassee since the mid-1990s, Democrats would need to flip three seats this cycle to share power in the chamber.
But does the Florida Democratic establishment think that Lewis can flip SD 20 blue?
There have been both local and national stories questioning how much financial support Lewis is receiving — or not receiving from the party.
After a Tampa Bay Times story ran that quoted Lewis as wondering why she wasn’t getting the same financial backing that GOP groups are giving to Burgess, she said she was “reprimanded” by some people in the Florida Democratic Party, specifically from Senate Victory, the fundraising arm of the Florida Senate Democrats.
“I was only saying what was happening,” she said. “They were not helping us. They were not interested in the race.”
Lewis said that some of these party officials then told her to dial back her comments to reporters about the issue, or she would lose some significant campaign contributions.
She won’t do that.
“They were trying to coerce me into saying things that simply weren’t true,” she said, adding that she won’t be “treated like I’m some sort of puppet because of money.”
As it stands now, she’s being swamped by Burgess in fundraising. He’s raised $272,290, while Lewis has raised just $44,036.
Meanwhile, Burgess said that even though the demographics make the district look extremely competitive (there’s just a little more than 3,000 more registered Republicans than registered Democrats in the district of 335,060 voters), he believes the majority of the voters there align ideologically closer to him.
“I think that anybody who you talk to who’s from this area would tell you that most of the Democrats in a large area within this community are conservative individuals,” he said.