It may have been one of the few apparent populist successes to come out of last year's legislative redistricting battle, but the creation of Senate District 14 – which combines parts of two districts stretching the distance of Orange, Osceola and Polk counties in a move to create a more Hispanic voting bloc – hasn't yet signaled a sea change in state politics as usual. Most notably, it's given incumbent state Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, the opportunity to ascend from five and a half years in the House minority into a more influential body. But, with the addition of Republican hopeful Will McBride – a familiar Spanish-language television attorney with scant political chops – to the fray, the race has become haphazardly comedic in its blandness. Both candidates boast overflowing coffers thanks to big business involvement, and, perhaps because of that, neither is steering too far from his centrist, likable course.
Soto came to his House office in a special election in 2007, riding a miniature surge of young Central Florida progressives led by now-outgoing state Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando. But Soto, an attorney who repeatedly clings to the "moderate" label (enough so that he's been a safe bet for President Barack Obama's attempts at Hispanic outreach), ruffled some feathers when it came time to vote. In his first year, Soto supported Republican red-meat policies on social issues like abortion, though at the time he claimed he was still in support of a woman's right to choose. He's still tepid on the issue, saying he prefers to leave decisions on women's health to women and their doctors. Similarly, he toes the line on gun control: He would still vote in favor of a bill he supported in 2008 that prohibited public and private employers from forbidding firearms in their employees' parked cars.
"I have a high crime district," he says, adding that the other option would be to keep the guns hidden behind trees. "I would vote the same way currently based on self-defense and privacy."
It's the gray area that Soto often occupies, however. In a recent Orlando Sentinel editorial board interview, Soto claimed he was misled on the implications of some bills – including one mandating ultrasounds prior to the termination of pregnancies – adding that he would probably change his vote today if he had the chance.
Soto has remained reliably liberal on less controversial issues, including education and labor. His win in November could signal procedural changes; if the Senate were to get to 14 Democrats, then Democrats would have the power to police Republican overreaching. Even so, Soto says it's important, especially as a Democrat perpetually voting in the minority, that a legislator have something more to show for himself than what he's been against. To that end, Soto has made headlines for his successes on banning street racing, moving SunRail forward and ensuring benefits for the spouses of fallen firefighters.
McBride, on the other hand, doesn't have any such history to speak of. Registering only as a minor blip in 2006 during his failed U.S. Senate primary attempt against media darling Katherine Harris, McBride's stated political philosophies – he did not return calls for this story – come off, at best, unseasoned; at worst, purchased. He would solve budget shortfalls by declining his legislative salary and benefits, he told the Sentinel editorial board. He would "love to wrap his arms around the budget" while bringing "common sense" to Tallahassee. At face value, McBride's machinations are almost charming. He clearly assumes his smiling, television-ready appearance will play well with a 50 percent Hispanic electorate. In reality, McBride stands at odds with his majority Democratic district: He's staunchly pro-life; he's a former public school teacher who presently homeschools; he's a bootstraps Republican standing against social welfare.
Though McBride likes to say he doesn't "know what it's like to take money from special interests," his campaign (in addition to being funded by $200,000 of his own money) is getting assistance from a Tallahassee electioneering organization called, deceptively, "Progressives." Several mailers attacking Soto have carried the "Progressives" disclaimer and are intended to give the appearance that Soto's own party is against him. The group is actually chaired by Alachua County Republican Party chairman William "Stafford" Jones. It's that sort of dishonesty that can actually be insulting to a Hispanic audience, says Soto.
"I don't think there's much of a notion that Will McBride's a regular guy," Soto says. "He's viewed as a very well-known attorney. He regularly wears makeup."