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Hillsborough Candidates Speak With Muslim Community Ahead of November Election

Roberto Roldan
WUSF Public Media
Karen Perez, a candidate for Hillsborough County School Board, was asked about her position on charter schools at the candidate forum hosted by the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay Area.

The Muslim community in the Tampa Bay area is one of the largest in the state, and local politicians got the opportunity to make their pitches to them on Saturday.

More than 300 residents and nearly 30 candidates attended the first-ever candidate forum at the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay Area. 

The tens of thousands of local Muslims area are politically diverse, so candidates’ support for affordable housing and charter schools received equal applause.

But organizer Nadia Ghabin said an overarching issue for the community is the rise of Islamophobia.

"Some of the rhetoric that's coming from the conservatives is very concerning to our community," Ghabin said. "Some people run their entire platform on hatred and bigotry."

That concern was clear in the questions asked of the candidates. Some people running for school board were asked about what they would do to address religious bullying in schools and judicial candidates were asked how they would ensure equal treatment in their courtrooms.

Gary Pruitt, a former Tampa Police corporal running against incumbent Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister, was a hit with the crowd when he said he opposed the county's cooperation with the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE).

“Should I become your elected sheriff, I will not partner with a federal agency or any other agency whose sole purpose is to victimize honest, hardworking citizens ever,” Pruitt told the crowd.

Candidates also fielded questions about charter schools, healthcare and the state minimum wage.

Organizer and moderator Ahmed Bedier said it was important for the Muslim community to hear from the politicians on a wide range of views so that they could vote for who would best represent all residents, not just Muslims.

“The issues that are important to us as Muslims, are also the same issues that are important to all Floridians,” Bedier said.

A number of Republican candidates attended the candidate forum, many of whom had long-standing relationships with the Muslim community in Tampa. They likewise spoke out against hate and promised to fight for equality in their respective positions of power.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist is defending his seat against Democratic challenger Mariella Smith and Independent Joe Kotvas. He told the audience about the childhood years he spent in Pakistan and his time in the state senate fighting for tougher penalties for hate crimes.

Crist said the prejudice expressed by some politicians on the national level shouldn't bias the way people think about local representatives.

"At the local level, our issues really aren't partisan,” Crist said. “Our issues are about storm water and roads and sidewalks."

Crist also said the event was one of the most well-run and well-attended candidate forums he has ever attended.

Organizers said they are hoping the event got the Muslim community more politically engaged and showed local politicians that they need to do more to reach them.

Roberto Roldan is a senior at the University of South Florida pursuing a degree in mass communications and a minor in international studies.
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