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Five GOP Candidates In Race For Florida House Dist. 4

WUWF Public Media

There’s a crowded field of  candidates in the race for the Republican nomination for the Florida House of Representatives District 4, which covers the vast majority of Okaloosa County. They are seeking to replace incumbent Matt Gaetz, who won the seat in 2010, but is now running for Congress.

The two candidates with the most name recognition are two-term Okaloosa County Commissioner Wayne Harris, a 27 year Air Force veteran, and former Destin Mayor and businessman Mel Ponder.

Lesser known community-wide, but still experienced politically is Shalimar resident Laurie Bartlett, who serves as vice chairman of the Okaloosa Republican Executive Committee.      

New to politics is defense contractor Armand Izzo of Niceville.

“I’m a 22 year Air Force veteran. I have deep ties in the community,” said Izzo. “My over 34 years of experience in the defense industry sets me apart from the others running in this race and it’s vital because the economic engine in the 4th district is the military.”

Also, making his first run for office is Niceville resident and small businessman Jonathan Tallman.

“I was born and raised in Okaloosa County, grew up in Okaloosa County, and just want to bring conservative values and principles to Tallahassee,” Tallman said. “I want to run Florida more like a business.”

All of the competitors bill themselves as conservative, each advocating some combination of limited government, pro-life, and protection of constitutional rights, including the Second Amendment.

The candidates have been on the campaign trail for months and have taken part in various candidate forums, including WSRE TV’s recent Rally 2016 program, where questions were provided by local chapters of the League of Women Voters.

I am a very strong proponent of protecting our education and furthering it,” said Bartlett, getting the first crack at a question about the legislative responsibility for protecting the educational system and specific proposals for improving it.  “I’m also a very strong proponent of getting Common Core out of our system and putting education back into our local government. And, I’m a very strong proponent of getting our parents involved in their children again. I think over the years, we have moved away from that.”

On the issue of education, Ponder agrees with the idea of getting rid of Common Core and shift toward more local control. “I think a lot of the decisions should be made at the local level and by parents and teacher involvement. I think that’s critical and important,” said Ponder, adding that more work should be done with teachers in the current school system, so help ensure students are equipped for jobs on day one.

Although Harris did not attend this particular candidate forum, he, Izzo, and Tallman agree with on the issue of local control, and they each have expressed their support for more school choice.

As it relates to many of the issues facing the candidates in this race, there are some subtle differences in their approaches.

Asked how they about they would ensure the Panhandle is adequately represented on the Florida Constitutional Revision Commission when it convenes next year (2017), they agreed that reaching out across the state and working locally as a team will be necessary.

Izzo says he would start the process at the lowest level, within each of the district’s diverse communities.

“What we would do is bring in different members from those, the stronger members there, and then begin to expand that team to encompass more of the Panhandle, towards Pensacola and towards Panama City to have the right representation,” said Izzo.

On the issue of Amendment 4, regarding tax exemption for solar or renewable energy devices, most of the candidates say support it, but not Bartlett. “Solar energy should be a free market,” she said. “Not everybody wants to buy it. Not everybody wants to put panels on their house. And, we cannot decide which way the economy’s gonna go because we give them tax breaks.”

Another issue is Amendment 1, which was adopted by 75% of Florida voters in 2014 to protect the state’s water and land resources. However, the legislature has diverted portions of the Amendment 1 funds for other uses, such as salaries. Generally, the candidates were against such diversion of the funds, instead favoring that all be used for their intended purpose.

Jonathan Tallman says using the money for stormwater management would benefit Okaloosa County.

“If we look at how we can make sure we’re good stewards of environmental issues like making sure we keep Choctawhatchee Bay clean, if we do that, that’s going to increase, um, from an economic perspective. Because, more tourists are gonna come to our area,” Tallman said.

“We’ve estimated that there’s $50M worth of stormwater repairs that have to be done in this county. That’s a lot of money,” said Harris, who addressed the issue of water quality and stormwater management at a recent candidate forum presented by the Emerald Coast Chapter of the National Association of Active and Retired Federal Employees (NARFE) and video-taped by Crestview Community TV (CVC-TV).

Harris says they’d have the money if not for a litany of unfunded state mandates. But, he adds that it could be worse, points to the problems now plaguing Lake Okeechobee. He says the state needs to work with the private sector to develop a plan of attack.

“The one bill that I will consider running for is legislation calling for a water map of Florida to determine whether the contaminant levels are high, what’s causing them, with documented and confirmed scientific data and multiple sources, and the best way to remove them,” Harris said. 

Ensuring that Floridians have access to quality, low-cost health care is another matter for the state’s lawmakers.

At the NARFE forum, Ponder noted that he is not a fan of the Affordable Care Act or increasing Medicaid coverage. But, he believes there are options that can and should be pursued.

“Some of those things we get the pleasure of is called “Section 1332 Waivers” that, as a state, we’ve got to be prepared to take advantage of those come January,” Ponder said. “We also have to be able to push out state legislature to become competitive across state lines, which we’re not currently doing.”

Mel Ponder, Wayne Harris, Armand Izzo, Laurie Bartlett, and Jonathan Tallman will square off in the August 30 Republican Primary, which is closed due to the qualifying of write-in candidate Christopher Schwantz.

Leading the way in terms of campaign fundraising is Harris. As of the August 5 reporting date, he had over $160,000. Bartlett had over $158,000 in her campaign coffers, although nearly 97 percent was from a personal loan. Ponder had almost $110,000 combined, with no loans. Tallman had over $50,000, with Izzo raising just under $18,000 total. Indicative of his stated intent to run just for the purpose of closing the primary, Schwantz has made no effort to campaign and has zero dollars in his coffers.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.