TALLAHASSEE – One of the highest-profile Florida House races this year pits a two-term Republican with the advantages of incumbency against a Democrat school teacher with a prime political pedigree.
For the newly drawn House District 30, Rep. Scott Plakon, a Longwood businessman, is running against Karen Castor Dentel, a teacher at Maitland's Dommerich Elementary who comes from a prominent family of Democratic elected officials.
Who are the candidates?
Plakon, 53, is the CEO of publishing company The Claims Pages, and has served for four years in the House. He is married with six children, and lives in Longwood, which is outside the district. Plakon says he's looking for a house in Altamonte Springs within the new district, and plans to move into an apartment there soon.
Plakon says the race will be defined by job-creation and Republicans' fiscal stewardship. He notedFlorida's Triple-A bond rating, and said GOP leaders were wise to restore nearly $1 billion in education funding this year without raising taxes.
"They talk about education not being adequately funded, but they never talk about where the money is going to come from," Plakon said. "We made smart choices to add $1 billion this year."
Castor Dentel, 43, has lived in Maitland within the new district for 20 years. Married with two children, she has a doctorate in education from the University of Florida and has taught in Orange County Public Schools for 11 years. She is the daughter of former Florida Education Commissioner Betty Castor, who served as the University of South Florida's president and ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate against Mel Martinez in 2004. Her sister is U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa. Her brother is a Palm Beach County judge. Her stepfather, Sam Bell, is a Tallahassee attorney and former Volusia County legislator.
She actually invited Plakon to speak to her class two years ago, and has occasionally posted kind words on his Facebook page about some non-controversial bills he pushed. Plakon has called Castor Dentel a "nice lady with bad ideas," and plans to highlight her teachers' union membership.
Conversely, Castor Dentel says Plakon will have to defend his vote to support legislation that would have allowed parents options including "privatizing" some failing schools.
She says the "Rick Scott" agenda has been destructive to schools, and plans to draw attention to cuts to education funding as well as the "parent trigger" bill the House passed last session.
"He has supported Rick Scott pretty much 100 percent," Castor Dentel said. "He supports privatizing education, and I'm fully against that."
Where is House District 30?
Approximately two-thirds of the district is within Seminole County and the rest is in Orange County, stretching from the edge of Apopka east to take in parts of Altamonte Springs, Casselberry, Eatonville, Fern Park, Maitland, and Winter Park.
It encompasses roughly 45 percent of Plakon's old district. It also includes about 22 percent of the district now represented by term-limited House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park.
What is the racial/partisan breakdown?
HD 30 is nearly 66 percent white, nearly 18 percent Hispanic, and 13 percent African-American by voting-age population. It is nearly evenly divided by party registration, with 38.1 percent of its voters Democrats and 37.6 percent Republican. Democrat Alex Sink would have carried the new district by 1 percentage-point in 2010, and Barack Obama would have won it by 3.9 percentage-points in 2008. It is a quintessential toss-up.
Who has an advantage?
Castor Dentel is kicking off her campaign this Friday with a rally at the Maitland Civic Center – a bit of a high-profile entrance for a state House race
Plakon has also been hosting events – a "Friend-Raiser" with pastors last week, and an actual fundraiser with doctors this week. Big guns – like the Florida Chamber of Commerce and other interest-groups which finance mostly GOP candidates -- are expected to keep his coffers filled. Plakon was one of 60 Republican legislators – out of 110 GOP House and Senate members in the 160-seat Legislature – who got a "report card" grade of 100-percent from the Chamber last session.
"It's a clash of philosophy. Scott is very conservative," said incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.
"I hear she is a very good candidate … I know her mother and her sister. But the party and our colleagues are going to rally around him to make sure he has the resources to compete."
Democrats have tried to recruit Castor Dentel to run for years and have tabbed her as an up-and-coming star of the party – if she can get elected. Her familial ties to Florida's Democratic fundraising base – unions, especially those representing public employees, and trial lawyers – should at least insure she has the money to compete.
"She comes with outstanding name recognition and is a hard worker, not just because of her name," said incoming House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston, a Plantation Democrat who is overseeing House campaigns for the party.
"She's just out there working and doing the right thing."
House Democrats are hoping to pick up between six and eight seats, which would shrink the GOP majority in the chamber to 74-46 – less than the current 82-38 super-majority that allows Republicans to steamroll Democrats on most votes.
House District 30 is the kind of suburban, slightly Democratic district that has consistently gone to Republican candidates over the last decade. For Democrats to return to relevance in Tallahassee, they'll have to carry more districts like this one.
Early Advantage: Because most of the district is still within Seminole County, Plakon is already familiar with more than 40 percent of the voters and the Republican money machine is behind Plakon, the GOP has a slight early advantage. We'll know more after the next quarterly fundraising reports.