By Ryan Dailey, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — A closely watched race for a North Florida state Senate seat long held by Democrats continued to heat up Monday, as incumbent Loranne Ausley and Republican challenger Corey Simon went toe-to-toe on guns, abortion and education issues.
Ausley, the scion of a politically connected North Florida family that includes former state lawmakers and a prominent attorney, was first elected to the Senate in 2020 after withstanding a challenge from Republican political newcomer Marva Preston. Ausley previously served two stints in the House.
Simon is new to politics but he wields name recognition locally, a factor some political analysts have warned Democrats not to overlook. The former Florida State University football star also played professionally, and his campaign mailers heavily feature FSU’s garnet and gold colors. Simon also previously was tapped by Gov. Ron DeSantis to lead the state agency Volunteer Florida, a post that Simon left when he launched his Senate bid.
At their first debate during a Capital Tiger Bay Club event in Tallahassee on Monday, Ausley and Simon fielded questions on policy and politics.
The pair dueled on the issue of guns, with Simon expressing views largely aligned with those of Florida’s GOP leaders.
“My feelings on guns are very simple. We have to stop criminalizing law-abiding citizens for their Second Amendment rights. I support the (Coach Aaron Feis) Guardian Program that puts more school-resource officers on our campuses,” he said.
The Florida Legislature created the school guardian program in 2018, as part of a sweeping school-safety measure passed in response to a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. The program has sparked controversy, in part, because it allows school personnel, including teachers, to be designated as “guardians” and carry firearms on campus.
Ausley said that, while she supports Second Amendment rights, “even the Florida Constitution acknowledges that the manner of bearing arms can be regulated by law.”
“We have a gun violence epidemic in this country, and it’s different than every country around the world. And it’s far too easy for people who shouldn’t have access to guns to get them,” she said.
Ausley was pressed about a controversy surrounding a recent political mailer depicting children on shooting-range targets surrounded by bullet holes. Simon also is pictured in the mailer, which was paid for by the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
“Don’t let extremists like Corey Simon turn our schools into shooting ranges,” the mailer said. After the ad drew objections from local Republican party officials and others, Ausley said she never approved it.
“My campaign is not responsible for the mail piece,” Ausley said Monday. “It was put out by the Democratic Party. I have no control over what they send out. I do not prefer these campaign tactics, I don’t think either of us do, but neither of us can control them.”
Democrats long have controlled the North Florida Senate seat, but the Legislature redrew the district as part of the state’s once-a-decade redistricting process. The district, which includes Leon County and now spans a dozen rural counties, is comprised of approximately 170,000 registered Democrats and about 126,000 registered Republicans, according to the state Division of Elections’ website.
With Democrats outnumbered 24-16 in the upper chamber, Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, D-Plantation, has called Ausley’s re-election bid “too important” to lose.
As Republicans seek to flip the seat, DeSantis endorsed Simon after he jumped into the race for Senate District 3 over the summer.
The candidates on Monday also were asked about their stances on abortion access. The issue was reignited in campaigns this year after U.S. Supreme Court justices overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision on abortion and Florida enacted a new law banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
Simon expressed support for the 15-week restriction, but added that “there should be some exceptions for rape and incest,” which the state law does not include. He also rebuked Ausley’s “extremist” label, saying he is “certainly not for locking moms up for the choices they’ve been making.”
Under the state law passed this spring, abortion providers could face third-degree felonies for violations and loss of licenses for violations.
Ausley, who voted against the abortion measure, criticized Simon’s answer, saying that lawmakers had to vote for the measure as a whole, not just the portions they supported.
“In my experience, I haven’t seen any Republican that is supported by the Republican Party as heavily as you are, be able to come into this process and vote a different way (than the party),” Ausley said.
But Simon, who frequently has painted himself as a political outsider, shot back that, as a Black conservative, he will “think for (himself)” and not simply vote with the party.
Ausley and Simon also diverged on the issue of school-voucher programs. Ausley characterized the programs as “siphoning money” from traditional public schools, while Simon backed vouchers as “putting our kids first and putting the system second.”
When the candidates were invited to ask each other questions before the debate concluded, Ausley asked Simon whether he believes that President Joe Biden was “duly elected” in 2020 — a result that former President Donald Trump and many Republicans throughout the country refuse to accept.
“The election is done. President Biden is the president. And we are worse for it,” Simon said.
When asked to clarify his answer, Simon repeated it.