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00000174-121d-d47e-a1f7-523d2c950000 WUSF News regularly collaborates with University of South Florida journalism classes in Tampa and St. Petersburg, providing students an opportunity to share their work with the greater Tampa Bay area.Some of the projects have included:“Past Plates” - a podcast and written stories produced in Spring 2017 that look into people’s memories and traditions related to food, food culture and food business in south St. Petersburg. In fall 2016, students profiled candidates running for Tampa Bay area elected offices. They were produced as part of the USF Zimmerman School of Advertising and Mass Communications' Advanced Reporting or Public Affairs classes; and as part of the Media and Elections class at USF St. Petersburg’s Journalism and Mass Communications Department.In 2015, WUSF journalists joined the USFSP Neighborhood News Bureau in creating oral histories of residents of St. Petersburg's historic Midtown neighborhood. That work was featured on WUSF's Florida Matters public affairs show.

Florida House Of Representatives District 68 Candidate Joseph Bensmihen

Joseph Bensmihen

Growing up with a physical handicap and having to address social issues at age 7 paved the way for a St. Petersburg home health care executive to seek office in Congress.

That’s why Joseph Bensmihen says he is running for state representative from House District 68 in Pinellas County.

Age: 47 Education: Yeshiva University Occupation: Home Health Care Executive Political Experience: None

A native of Montreal, Canada, Bensmihen was born with the neurological disorder cerebral palsy. This disorder affects the part of the brain responsible for muscle activity, in turn hindering body movement, coordination and balance.

As a child, Bensmihen noticed a divide between himself and other children. He was not able to attend the same school as his sister but rather one for students with special needs. He was determined to change that.

“I just wanted to do what everyone else did. I wanted to ride a bicycle like everyone else. I wanted to go to school like everyone else. I wanted to drive a car like everyone else,” Bensmihen says. 

His father explained to him that Canada’s education system was designed that way. However, that answer wasn’t enough to satisfy Bensmihen’s frustration.

His persistence eventually would lead him to an opportunity to sit down with and express his concern to the then-prime minister of Canada, Pierre Trudeau.

“That’s kind of where my sense of social justice began,” Bensmihen says.

While his meeting didn’t have an immediate impact, it helped lead to Canadian law being amended in 1981 so disabled children could attend public schools.

After graduating Yeshiva University with a bachelor’s degree in political science, Bensmihen continued his advocacy work, helping transition the disabled into the financial sector and establishing several home health agencies throughout Florida.

Fast forward to 2016 and Bensmihen has found himself running for the Legislature after the current representative of District 68, Dwight Dudley, announced he would not seek another term. Bensmihen already had intended to challenge him for House District 68. With the seat now open, he was even more determined to improve where he believed Dudley’s policies were lacking.

After a primary season as the lone Republican candidate, Bensmihen now faces off against Democratic opponent Ben Diamond in the district that covers much of the northern core of St. Petersburg. District 68 has a population of more than 159,000 people, 17 percent of whom are senior citizens. Bensmihen’s record in elder care could potentially help him win over these voters.

He considers himself a moderate Republican who is pro-choice and supports stem cell research but criticizes the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

He believes that Diamond’s background in law doesn’t necessarily qualify him in pushing certain agendas, such as Medicaid expansion.

“You can’t make that argument as an attorney. You’ve got to make that argument as a social worker, which I am,” Bensmihen says.

Although his campaign’s biggest contribution has been a $10,000 loan from himself, Bensmihen has received numerous donations from health care agencies as well.

The campaign to date has raised an estimated $42,000, with more than $27,800 spent so far.

Bensmihen emphasizes his people-over-party approach.

“When I walk into that chamber,” Bensmihen says, “I am not going to put party first. I’m going to put people first.”

Brian Fernandes is a student journalist attending the University of South Florida Zimmerman School of Advertising and Mass Communications. This story was produced as part of the school’s Advanced Reporting or Public Affairs class this semester, under the leadership of instructors Wayne Garcia and Wendy Whitt.

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