By Ryan Dailey
A heated Democratic primary race for a redrawn South Florida Senate seat is pitting an incumbent legislative leader against a challenger with a decade-long career in local government.
Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, a Plantation Democrat, elected in 2016, is trying to hold onto her seat after the makeup of Senate District 35 changed earlier this year through the once-a-decade reapportionment process. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse, Book has made her advocacy for preventing child abuse a top priority.
Barbara Sharief, a former Broward County commissioner who also served as the county’s mayor, is facing off against Book in an open primary after the Republican candidate in the race dropped out. Sharief, a health care professional who is the founder of South Florida Pediatric Homecare, Inc., also served as a Miramar city commissioner.
Sharief entered the state Senate race after losing a Democratic primary to replace the late U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings. When Sharief announced her candidacy earlier this year, Book blasted her opponent for causing Democrats to redirect resources that could have been used on other campaigns.
“Serving in the state Senate should never be a ‘consolation prize,’ especially at such a time when our values and freedoms are under attack by the extreme right,” Book said in a March press release.
Both Book and Sharief are recognizable figures in South Florida politics, and they both told the News Service of Florida in separate interviews this week that they are undeterred by having to reach voters of all party affiliations in the Aug. 23 primary election.
“We are definitely reaching out to NPAs (voters with no party affiliation) and talking about my record in Tallahassee, talking about the issues that are important to me, the advocacy within the community, the pieces of legislation that we have worked on, and what we’ve done. Because I believe that is a stellar record,” said Book, the founder, and CEO of Lauren’s Kids, a nonprofit focused on education about sexual abuse prevention.
Sharief, who paints herself as a Tallahassee outsider, maintains that her platform can appeal to voters of all political persuasions. As an example, she pointed to water quality as one of the issues she focuses on with voters.
“I don’t have a problem winning in Republican areas. I think the issues that I choose to address and what we’re doing they’re just issues. I think people have made this very partisan, and Republicans want good water and so do Democrats and independents,” Sharief said.
Sharief said the issues that matter to voters vary depending on where they live in the Broward County district, which runs west of the Florida Turnpike and includes Weston, Pembroke Pines, and Miramar. The western border of the district also includes portions of the Everglades.
“I know that people talk about rent all the time, but rent is just one aspect of it. I think that we have a healthcare access issue in the eastern portion and in our older community,” Sharief said.
The center of the southwest Broward County district, Sharief continued, includes “younger families with younger kids that are in public school. The biggest concern is affordability for housing; some is rent, some is mortgage, some aren’t able to have first-time home ownership.”
Voters in Pembroke Pines and Miramar are concerned about flooding and blasting in quarries in the region, according to Sharief.
Meanwhile, Book said she is talking to voters about “pocketbook issues” that have a universal impact.
“Everyone is dealing with affordability crisis issues in our state. The rising cost of gas, bread, eggs, milk, prescriptions, property insurance, rent increases,” she said. “Those are things that are across the board. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican, NPA, or a Democrat. Those are the pocketbook issues that are important right now to everyday Floridians.”
Book has run unopposed in previous Senate elections, making this race an unprecedented challenge for her. And the Republican-dominated Legislature threw her a curve ball by redrawing the seat she currently holds.
“Certainly, the redistricting process was one where it always provokes anxiety, and things change. And I think that the Republicans wanted to keep me pretty occupied and drew me out of my current Senate seat by four blocks,” said Book, whose residence now sits just outside the district’s lines.
Some political experts struggle to pick a clear-cut favorite in the race as they look at the demographic breakdown of the newly configured district.
Matthew Isbell, a veteran Democratic consultant, published an article this week saying that, among all registered voters, the district is 35 percent Hispanic, 33 percent white, and 18 percent Black — a shift from what the shares of voters would have been in a closed Democratic primary.
“Book is the likely frontrunner for the seat. That said, it’s by no means over,” Isbell wrote in his newsletter MCIMaps. “If Book winds up winning by a solid 10, 15, or 20-point margin, then I’d say the opening of the primary carries little impact. If the race is decided by just a couple points, however, then we could argue it made a big difference.”
Negative television ads have ratcheted up the tension between Book and Sharief — with Book’s camp alleging that Sharief has engaged in Medicaid fraud and Sharief accusing Book of enriching herself through her nonprofit.
Mitch Ceasar, a former chairman of the Florida Democratic Party who also served as Broward County party chairman for years, called the match-up between the two challengers “a historic race” in Broward.
“I’ve been active for decades in this county, and I have never seen a contest that’s two significant figures such as these running against each other and was necessitated by reapportionment,” he told the News Service.
Ceasar said Sharief has an advantage because she’s previously campaigned in the district during her time as a county commissioner. But Book could have an edge because she “probably has unlimited money,” he added.
The contentiousness in the SD 35 contest is “not symptomatic just of this race,” Ceasar argued.
“I’ve seen races all over Broward and all over South Florida start to get very nasty, but I think that’s a function more or less of the election being 30 days away. I think perhaps, additionally, maybe their internal polling shows it’s very close; thus, the nature of the race also turns negative,” he said.
When asked what sets them apart from their opponent, Book and Sharief both emphasized their bona fides.
“I try and have tried to run a very positive campaign. I talk about the issues and what I bring to the community as an advocate, as a lawmaker, as a legislator, as the leader of the (Senate) Democratic Caucus,” said Book.
Sharief pointed to her roots in the district and familiarity with its residents.
“What sets me apart is over twice as much experience, living in the district, dealing with the issues that affect the district, knowing the people … and having them know me, and have elected me four times,” Sharief said.
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