Two seats in the Florida House have piqued the interest of five candidates in the Manatee-Sarasota area. An incumbent seeking a second term finds himself facing two challengers in the August primary.
State Rep. Jim Boyd is leaving the Florida Legislature due to term limits, and Rep. Joe Gruters decided to run for a seat in the Florida Senate, leaving Districts 71 and 73, respectivel,y for the taking. Three Democrats, including incumbent Wengay Newton, are seeking election to the District 70 seat.
The Bradenton Herald sent a questionnaire to state House candidates in the interest of informing readers. Here's what they said in their own words.
The party primaries are Aug. 28, and the general election is Nov. 6.
Note: If a candidate has not yet responded to Bradenton Herald's questions, a short biography of the candidate written by a reporter based on publicly available information will appear below. If the candidate does respond, this article will be updated.
Vito Demetrius Sheeley, House District 70 candidate, previously worked in U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor's Tampa district office. A Democrat, has been linked to the campaigns of both former U.S. Rep. David Jolly and current U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, when Jolly's camp reportedly "stole" Sheeley from the Crist's team, according to Sunshine State News. According to his campaign, Sheeley has been endorsed by St. Petersburg leaders, including Mayor Rick Kriseman and council chairwoman Lisa Wheeler-Bowman.
Q: What is your background (family, job, hobbies)?
: Keisha Bell, the daughter of two public school educators, was born in Saint Petersburg. She graduated from the University of Central Florida with a Bachelor Degree in Psychology and from Florida State University College of Law. Keisha Bell is a licensed attorney with a diverse professional background in family, personal injury, and workers compensation law. Through her work with Legal Aid organizations and via pro bono, she has been able to provide legal services to those most under-represented throughout the State of Florida. In addition to practicing law, Keisha Bell has spearheaded a Youth Conference Program, through which she facilitated over 100 conferences throughout public schools in Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties. Furthermore, she has managed a Federal Community Partnership Grant to assist with reducing health disparities of diabetes and childhood obesity in Saint Petersburg. Currently, Keisha Bell is a member of the Saint Petersburg Chamber; the Community Planning and Preservation Commission; the Florida Association of Women Lawyers Pinellas County Chapter; the Fred G. Minnis Sr. Bar Association; a member of the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum; St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church; and formerly on the Executive Committee and Governance Committee of the Foundation for a Healthy Saint Petersburg’s Board of Trustees. In addition to her wide community involvement, she continues to mentor a student through Pinellas County Schools. Keisha Bell writes a weekly column for the Weekly Challenger. Aside from writing, she loves meeting new people, traveling, reading, movies, and spending time with loved ones.(Incumbent) Wengay Newton Sr., D-HD 70
: Born and raised in St. Petersburg’s Midtown area with my seven siblings by our single divorced mother. I learned early on the value of hard work, teamwork, and perseverance. Married to my soul mate Melissa Newton for 27 years. We have 4 children and 6 grandchildren. Owner of Newton's Photography Studio since 2000. Pool, Golf, Fishing and Long Walks on the Beach.Tracy B. Pratt, D-HD 71
: I am a mother of two amazing school-age children, the wife of a dedicated family physician, a small business owner, and a local attorney who has been invested in my community for my entire career. I have worked with a variety of non-profits including Innocence Project, Habitat for Humanity, Girls Inc., Healthy Start Manatee, Sierra Club and Project 180. We also have four rescue dogs. I am a first generation American on my father’s side, and my mother’s side has proudly served in our military since early American days. My free time is family time, and we like to be out on the water and enjoying the arts. Both of my children are involved in local community theater programs.
Will Robinson, R-HD 71
: I was born in Bradenton, Florida. My grandparents moved to Bradenton in the late 1940’s. My grandfather and uncle founded Robby’s Sporting Goods in 1960 with the first location being on Manatee Avenue and 46th Street [my father joined them a few years later]. Robby’s was purchased by Woolworth’s in 1988 and eventually merged with Champs Sports. I attended Manatee High School where I served as student body class president. I am graduate of the University of Notre Dame and received my law degree from Stetson University College of Law. I am partner with the Blalock Walters law firm and focus on real estate law and am board certified by the Florida Bar in Real Estate Law. I am a Governor Rick Scott appointee of the Twelfth Judicial Circuit Nominating Commission, member of the Manatee Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors (former Chair of Manatee Young Professionals and the Legislative Affairs Committees), and the Lakewood Ranch Medical Center Board of Governors. I was the past chair of both Meals on Wheels Plus of Manatee and the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority and am a graduate of Leadership Florida Class XXIX and Leadership Manatee in 2007. I was honored in 2018 by Leadership Manatee with the Kent C. Schultz Distinguished Leadership Award, in 2014 by the Business Observer “40 under 40” and 2015 “People to Watch” by Biz(941). I have run in 2 Boston Marathons and 2 Ironman races. I enjoy visiting our local beaches and parks, including the Robinson Preserve, which is near and dear to my heart.Liv Coleman, D-HD 73
: I live in East Manatee, and I’m an educator from a family of educators. My mother was an inner-city public school teacher, I teach political science at the University of Tampa, and my husband teaches computer science at New College of Florida. I’ve been involved in community activism and advocacy on a range of issues to help Manatee & Sarasota. I’m also involved in church life, community service, and have previously held church leadership positions.Tommy Gregory, R-HD 73
: I come from a family of military service. My parents were both in the Army and my wife, Erica, and I both retired from the United States Air Force as Lieutenant Colonels after serving 20 years on active duty. A strong desire to serve runs through my family. I’ve served around the world in defense of the United States and American interests. During deployments in multiple theaters, I was the judge advocate (“JAG”) giving rules of engagement advice and legal approval on strikes against Taliban and Al-Qaeda terrorists. As a prosecutor, I was responsible for putting rapists, murderers and other dangerous criminals behind bars. I’m currently an attorney with Williams Parker Harrison Dietz and Getzen, defending the rights of private businesses. Erica and I have three sons and their futures are a driving reason for me wanting to continue serving our country in the Florida Legislature. We enjoy the outdoors, especially hunting and scuba diving.Melissa Howard, R-HD 73
: I am 46, a resident of Lakewood Ranch, along with my husband and Navy Veteran Ian. We have 2 adult children Brittany and Brandon. I am a Florida native, but moved to Ohio as a child where my father found work as a stone mason. Worked to put myself through College at Miami of Ohio. I have 20 years of management and operations experience. We own an International Medical Trade Show, Immexls. Our website is Immexls.com. We have 5 full-time local employees. I serve as a Court Appointed Manatee County Guardian Ad Litem, on the Foundation board of Easter Seals, Advisory Board of Southeastern Guide Dogs, Board of Junior League of Sarasota, President of the local chapter of Fl Federation of Republican Women. I have chaired 12 events and raised over $2,000,000 for local non-profits. My hobbies are volunteering, book club and Weight training.
Q: Hurricane relief and school security dominated the legislative session last year. What are the most important issues in your district, and how do you plan to fight for those needs?
Keisha Ann Bell, D-HD 70: Access to affordable healthcare — will fight to expand Medicaid; Public education — will fight for our public schools to be fully funded; and Obtaining a livable wage — will fight for an increase in minimum wage for all full-time workers.
In addition, I will fight for pay equity. I would offer and support an approach which supports eradicating and reducing poverty versus that of maintaining poverty.
(Incumbent) Wengay Newton Sr., D-HD 70: Jobs, Affordable Housing, Economic Opportunities, Education and Opioid Crisis. I've held 4 Town Halls to date in Sarasota, Bradenton, Ruboina and Ruskin. At each Town Hall I provided the constituents with information on the 2018 Legislative Session. All available funding such as Community Redevelopment (CRA - Tax Increment Funding Dollars), Community Development Block Grants (Federal Dollars). Also, 2018 Appropriations Project Funding brought back to the district. I am happy to announce that we brought back over $1.4 Billion of a $87.7 Billion State Budget for District 70. I also got funding fully restored funding to the "Home Instruction Program for Pre-School Youth" (HIPPY) $3.9 million.
Tracy B. Pratt, D-HD 71: I believe the most important issues in District 71 are those that we know most Floridians care about: Protecting our environment, keeping our communities safe with common sense gun reform, access to quality healthcare, and protecting our public schools. For example, the people of Florida overwhelmingly demanded a Constitutional Amendment to protect the environment, but then the legislature failed to fund it fully, and then mismanaged the funds. Most people support common sense gun reform like universal background checks, and bans on assault weapons and high capacity magazines. We know that most Floridians want to see our state accept the Medicaid expansion, and we need to protect our public schools from privatization through the voucher system which has failed children in other states and threatens to do so here as well.
Will Robinson, R-HD 71: I have really enjoyed listening to the concerns of voters and small business owners since February of 2017, when I filed to run for the Florida House in my home district. Two issues I hear about the most are first, the need for a greater emphasis on workforce development and getting students the needed education and skills to immediately enter the workforce. As a state, we have not done the best we can to focus on job training and apprenticeship programs. We need enhanced focus on our trade schools and technical colleges, which are award winning institutions in our area. Second, as we learned with the tragedy at Parkland, our state needs to be more aggressive in taking on mental illness and helping educate our citizens this is a disease like any other physical ailment and mental health screening, training and treatment must be supported. I will fight for these important issues and many others by working to convince my colleagues from Key West to Pensacola that these issues impact all Floridians, including their own constituents.
Liv Coleman, D-HD 73: I’m running to make Florida public schools #1. We need to fully fund our public schools, so that they are no longer funded in the bottom 10% of schools nationwide and so we can attract the best professionals to work with our children. I also advocate moving away from high-stakes testing, which is burdensome for students, parents, and teachers alike. We need a more balanced approach to education that assesses basic skills but also includes room for critical thinking, communication, and creativity. For higher education, I support tuition-free community and technical college for at least a two-year degree. That way we can help workers get good-paying jobs and help businesses get the skilled workforce they need. I also support environmental conservation, infrastructure improvements, expanding access to high-quality health care, and common-sense gun-safety reforms
Tommy Gregory, R-HD 73: The most important issues remain the protection of individual rights and liberties by limiting the size and scope of government from intruding and controlling the lives of people in Manatee and Sarasota counties. This means continuing deregulation and ratcheting down taxes wherever possible and enforcing our laws. People thrive in a culture of freedom and order and we can never lose track of that. Transportation infrastructure, the economy, and education are important issues in this district and will require leadership, experience, and coordination with local, state, and federal agencies to solve. I have the skills and experience to fight for these needs. Hurricane preparedness and relief is a part of life in Florida. Governor Scott did a superb job of handling hurricane disasters in our state and along with the Florida Legislature put in place policies, methods and financing to prepare us for the future. We shouldn’t be looking only to throw money at the problems after a hurricane -- although some reactionary funding will always be needed -- as much as continually upgrading our abilities to wisely prepare for the next inevitable storm.
Melissa Howard, R-HD 73: The most important issues to my district are, preventing and eliminating illegal immigration, the continuation of Governor Scott’s jobs and economic policies that have created record jobs, and making our public schools world class. On day one, I will file legislation that repeals special taxpayer funded benefits for illegal aliens and remove laws that allow them to become lawyers and practice law in Florida courtrooms. As far as economic policy and job creation there is no vote I will take that raises taxes or increases regulations that would slow our economic growth. Finally, for our public schools, its time we invest in teachers and pass laws that reduce the size of bloated bureaucracies to maximize classroom spending.
Q: Why are you the best candidate?
Keisha Ann Bell, D-HD 70: District 70 needs stronger representation in Tallahassee and I am her. My expansive educational, professional, and community service background makes me the most well-rounded candidate. I am not status quo, but instead I have a long track record of successfully representing people who many times are deemed “voiceless.” My unique background has prepared me to both write and advocate for legislation most beneficial for people living in District 70. In addition, I am committed to being visible and available to the voters of District 70 in all four counties. I am the change District 70 wants and needs.
(Incumbent) Wengay Newton Sr., D-HD 70: Elected to two terms on St. Petersburg City Council in 2008 - 2016. Elected to the Florida House of Representatives November 8th 2016. Represents District 70 which covers; Hillsborough, Manatee, Pinellas & Sarasota Counties. 157 Thousand Constituents. Just completed my first term (two sessions) in the Florida Legislature. My Committee Assignments: Government Accountability Health Quality Subcommittee Joint Select Committee on Collective Bargaining PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee Transportation & Infrastructure
Tracy B. Pratt, D-HD 71: I am the best candidate because Florida deserves a leader that responds to the people, not the money from special interest groups, and not leaders that feel entitled to the position because of wealth and status. I am not a career politician, but I have worked with the state legislature in the past to support issues important to the people of our communities, and I will always fight for common sense solutions to the issues we ALL care about. I know that together we can Protect Florida’s Future!
Will Robinson, R-HD 71: I am running to keep Florida moving forward. We have some important challenges ahead of us and need a leader that understands our community. I was born in Bradenton, like my father. I went to Manatee High School, where I served as student body president. I have lived in Bradenton my entire life and have been blessed to be involved in the most important issues that our area has faced. To represent a community, you need to understand your community. I love Bradenton and want to see us succeed in Tallahassee.
Liv Coleman, D-HD 73: I am passionate about democracy, representation, and I’m committed to working hard for everyone in the district. I listen carefully to people, I am diplomatic by nature, and I’m willing to change my mind if I hear a good argument. When I was in college, I worked at the Minneapolis Mayor's Office, where I enjoyed making government work on behalf of citizens. Because of that, I am committed to holding at least one town hall every month so that citizens can be sure their voices are heard and so we can foster community dialogue on topics even when issues are contentious.
Tommy Gregory, R-HD 73: I’m a lifelong, principled conservative. I have the broadest and deepest level of experience leading while in the midst of high-pressure situations, of making tough decisions quickly by taking in all the available information and acting wisely. I’m proven in real life experiences around the world and understand the reality and value of true sacrifice for others. In addition to my global military experience, I have a law degree, a degree in economics and have run a small business for three years. I am the most ready and able to fight for the people of Manatee and Sarasota counties in Tallahassee. But maybe it’s best to let others speak for me. I have the support of eight county commissioners, a Florida state representative, a Florida state senator, three county sheriffs a U.S. Senator, and many other elected leaders. These people, experienced in leading from several perspectives, understand why I am the best candidate for District 73.
Melissa Howard, R-HD 73: Our campaign has always been about protecting, promoting and preserving the conservative principles and values that have led Florida into this unprecedented era of prosperity. My roots run deep in this district and community. Whether it’s a philanthropic cause or running our growing small business, I’m the conservative candidate most connected to our community and the only one that has ever created a job or signed a paycheck. As the most conservative candidate in the race, President Trump will find me to be his ally in doing everything I can to make America great again.