Looking to move to the state Senate, House Majority Leader Dana Young is embroiled in an election battle that includes a longtime Tampa lawyer and a wealthy strip-club owner.
District 18, which covers a portion of downtown Tampa and MacDill Air Force Base, stretching north to the Hillsborough-Pasco County line, is an open seat after it was redrawn because of a lengthy court dispute about the constitutionality of Senate districts.
Young, 51, a Republican lawyer from Tampa who has served three terms in the House, is facing off in Tuesday's election with Bob Buesing, 63, a Democrat and fellow Tampa lawyer, as well as two no-party candidates, Joe Redner, 76, owner of the Mons Venus strip club, and Sheldon Upthegrove, 35, an Air Force reservist who works at MacDill.
Young, who has the backing of Republican leaders in Tallahassee, was the early favorite in the race and has raised more than $2 million between her own campaign and a political committee that supports her.
While her opponents have accused her of ducking joint appearances until a forum Wednesday at the University of Tampa, Young said she has concentrated on a “grassroots” effort in the district, which includes the House seat she has represented since 2010.
"I have run a very ground game-centric campaign," Young said, adding it was her goal "to connect with voters every single day." She said she and her campaign supporters have knocked on 85,000 doors in the district.
As for the issues, Young said voters remain "very concerned about jobs and the economy."
Democrats decided to challenge her as the redrawn district is essentially a tossup seat, with Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney splitting the district vote in 2012. The district includes 38 percent of Hillsborough County's residents.
Democrats united behind Buesing, who has not run for office before but is well known in Tampa's legal community, having worked for nearly four decades at Trenam Law. He has also been a prominent advocate for child-development programs, based in part on his experience of raising two children and then opening his home to six at-risk youths over the last decade.
Buesing has raised about $430,000 and loaned nearly $129,000 to his campaign, finance reports show. He also has received more than $168,000 in in-kind contributions.
Buesing said his personal experience with at-risk teenagers and young adults as well as his advocacy for improving Florida's early-learning programs were the motivating factors for getting into the Senate race.
"It made me realize that you can really change lives in a real way by making smart, targeted investments in people," Buesing said. "It was great fun to help six people. Wouldn't it be great to help 6 million?"
Buesing has pledged to donate his legislative salary to the YMCA, where he has also been an active leader.
It has been an aggressive campaign on both sides.
Buesing has accused Young of being out of sync on a number of issues important to the Tampa community, including opposing the expansion of Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act. He also has targeted her support for allowing people with concealed-weapons licenses to carry guns on college and university campuses.
"Her voting record is very extreme, out of step with our district," Buesing said.
Young was with the House Republican majority in rejecting Medicaid expansion, and she has been a strong supporter of gun rights, arguing the campus-carry legislation would only allow a "very small subset" of people to have guns on college campuses.
"I do believe that criminals are always going to get firearms, and I support the right of law-abiding citizens to protect themselves," Young said.
Fracking has been a major issue in the campaign, with Buesing criticizing Young for supporting legislation that critics contend would have helped lead to the use of the controversial drilling technique in Florida by oil and gas companies.
Young said she strongly opposes fracking in Florida. "I always have, and I always will," Young said.
She said she supported legislation in the 2016 session that would have imposed a one-year moratorium on fracking while state environmental regulators studied the issue. Young said without a scientific basis, state regulators could not block fracking, and it could result in costly property-rights lawsuits from landowners.
Young said she supported another provision in the bill, which died in the Senate, that would have pre-empted local governments from banning fracking. She said without state control, some local governments, seeking revenue, could have approved fracking.
Buesing said if Young really opposed fracking, she should have simply supported a bill to ban fracking in the state.
"She does not reflect the moderate, sensible values of this community, which include protecting the environment," Buesing said.
Young and her supporters have hit back hard at Buesing. The Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, which is led by incoming Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, ran a television spot accusing Buesing of profiting from "government waste and abuse" in the construction of a new courthouse for the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee, a structure that became known as the "Taj Mahal" because of its lavish cost.
Buesing said he represented a business that had not been reimbursed for art work provided for the courthouse, a project he noted had been approved by the Republican-led Legislature. He said the ad was one of the "cheap, ridiculous personal attacks" that the GOP has launched against him.
Young and Buesing are in agreement on some issues, including support for a constitutional amendment, which if approved Tuesday by voters, would allow the expanded use of medical marijuana in the state. Both candidates also said they would also like to see ride-hailing companies, like Uber, expand in Hillsborough, where cab companies have tried to block the fast-growing transportation services.
Redner could be a significant factor in the race. He is a well-known figure in Tampa, having clashed frequently with government officials over the First Amendment and other issues, including gay rights.
With the sale of the highly successful Cigar City craft brewery in the last year, Redner has a net worth of $49.5 million, and he has largely self-funded his campaign, which has raised $346,000.
Redner has been critical of Young and has often praised Buesing at their joint forums. He is also supporting proposals more likely to attract Democratic or liberal voters, including support for a $15 minimum wage.
If elected, Redner said he would push causes like stronger environmental protections. "Nobody can tell me what to do. Nobody has ever told me what to do," Redner said at the Tampa Tiger Bay Club this month.
Buesing said it's unclear how Redner will impact the race.
"My expectation is that he will take away votes from her and me both, more or less in equal proportions," he said.
The fourth candidate in the race, Upthegrove, has been a constant presence at the campaign forums. But having only raised $3,700 through contributions and loans, he has been limited in reaching voters through traditional but costly campaign tools like mailers and television ads.