In recent years, it’s been pretty rare in Northwest Florida to have Democratic candidates squaring off in a state level primary election. But, this year, there are two running for the Florida House of Representatives District 1, which covers most of Escambia County.
The race includes political newcomer Vikki Garrett, a native of the area, who earned bachelor and masters’ degrees from the University of West Florida.
Garrett is making her first run for political office and hoping to take advantage of her decades of experience in transportation planning and engineering.
“Having worked in the public sector and having experience with working with different government agencies, I felt I had a background to bring something to the table,” Garrett said of her jobs with the Florida Department of Transportation, Escambia County, and most recently, the West Florida Regional Planning Council.
“And, I really felt the Panhandle has not really had what I consider a balanced representation in Tallahassee.”
Garrett’s reference to “balanced representation” denotes the fact that the legislative delegation from the region has been all Republican for most of the past two decades. The last Democratic representative from Northwest Florida was DeeDee Ritchie, elected to the District 3 seat in 1998.
Garrett wants to be the next, choosing to jump right in at the state level, although she did consider running for a more local office first.
“But, when I started looking at the matchup of my particular background and where it would be the best fit, I felt this was the best fit for me,” she said, again referencing her experience working with state agencies and state organizations. “Plus with it being an open seat and the timing of this, things kind of started lining up for me and I thought if I’m ever gonna [sic] do this or consider this, this was the moment.”
Garrett has been working toward the August 28 primary for the past year, declaring her candidacy last August. If elected, she says she’s anxious to get to work on a long list of priority issues, including health care, the environment, and public education.
“I feel like our budget for public education has been chipped away at; it’s been decreasing for years and I’d like to change that,” said Garrett. “I’d like to see our public education system be given the funding and the resources needed for the staff and faculty and teachers to be able to provide a quality education to all of our students.”
Also of concern to Garrett is the school to prison pipeline in Escambia County, which according to the Southern Poverty Law Center has one of the highest in-school arrest rates in the nation.
Further, prosecutors across the state have the unilateral ability to transfer juveniles to the adult court system in a process known as direct file.
“What we’re trying to change is to let the judge make that decision and there not be a recommendation from the prosecuting attorney, so that a more neutral party is making that decision for one,” said Garrett of her position on the direct file issue. “I would go a step further as a representative. I strongly feel we should we should not be arresting children. I think our system is set up where we are not addressing the issue in an age-appropriate fashion.”
Garrett expressed support for proposed Constitutional Amendment 4, which calls for restoration of felon voting rights. Also, she has been working to address violence issues at the Century Correctional Institution, which is located in the northern part of the district. Nine inmates died while in custody at the prison since January 2017, including two thus far this year.
Access to quality health care is also on Garrett’s radar, in order to close the coverage gap for uninsured Floridians who can’t afford to purchase their own coverage, but whose incomes are above current Medicaid eligibility. Garrett supports Medicaid expansion, and has a few other ideas.
“I definitely would like to see all residents in the state of Florida be able to buy into a health program that’s offered to the state employees,” Garrett said, noting that such a program would result in an increased risk pool, which lowers premiums and would enable the state to provide better coverage for those participating. “It’s a win-win for everybody.”
Meantime, Garrett is also excited about putting her transportation expertise to work. Since 2011, she’s been part of an effort to bring passenger rail service back to this part of the gulf coast.
“What we’re looking at right now is restoring the service from New Orleans to Orlando, with stops in between, so it would include Pensacola,” Garrett said. “So, I’m looking forward to working with the new mayor on having our train station ready to receive service and really excited to bring service back. This is a long distance route, so we would be eligible for federal funds.”
Garrett was appointed to the Gulf Coast Rail Service Working Group. The panel's 2017 report to Congress included a project design and construction budget for Pensacola at nearly $624,000. The estimated cost of improvements for the entire 775-mile route was more than $117 million.
Democrat Vikki Garrett believes her experience in identifying and securing grant resources will be an asset, not only for the restoration of passenger rail service, but as a state legislator in particular.
In the race for Florida House District 1, the first step will be the Aug. 28 Primary Election, where Garrett faces another political newcomer Franscine Mathis. The winner moves on to the General Election on November 6.