ST. PETERSBURG – Wengay Newton, CJ Czaia and Dan Fiorini, all hopefuls running for Florida House District 70, fielded questions at a candidate forum June 11 at the James B. Sanderlin Center, 2335 22nd Ave. S.
The South St. Petersburg Democratic Club in conjunction with the St. Petersburg Democratic Club and the Gulfport Democratic Club questioned the candidates from written submissions by the audience as Dr. Linda Lucas, president of the South St. Petersburg Democratic Club, served as moderator.
Czaia, a community activist and attorney, is the founder and chairman of the board of UnidosNow.org and former head of the Manatee County Democratic Party.
Local businessman Fiorini has a background in municipal urban planning. A resident of Pinellas County for 16 years, he has established several programs related to urban development and growth.
Newton, who termed out as a St. Pete city councilmember, told the crowd that his years of experience as a councilman makes him uniquely qualified for the district seat. As a politician, he said he’s been in the “battlefield” fighting since day one and will continue to do so for causes he believes in, such as traveling to Tallahassee every year to lobby for juvenile justice.
Fiorini said that he brings some hands-on experience of his own to the table as a former Florida House Legislative Aide to State Representative Helen Spivey.
“You have to know how to file a bill,” he said, “you have to how many committees is this bill going to go to; you have to know the House rules.”
Czaia stated that the important thing is not what you’ve done in the past but what you’re going to do today and in the future, and bringing about change is integral to that.
“What’s changed?” he said. “It’s not going to change if you keep voting in the same people…I’ve won murder trials,” he said. “I’ve gotten an officer fired for racial profiling, I stand up to judges, I take the heat and I will fight for this district.”
What is the district’s biggest need?
“I think that’s a fairly easy question,” remarked Fiorini. “The biggest need is in improvement of education,” adding that he believes if people want to end poverty, then the answer is education.
A strong education base is crucial to promoting business growth not only in the area but in the state, he noted, adding that he supports the expansion of vocational schools such as Pinellas Technical College.
For far too long the rich have been taking advantage of tax loopholes, Czaia explained, and if those loopholes can be closed without raising taxes then that will free up money for education and for other programs.
What is happening with the juveniles is the most pressing issue, Newton said, citing the slaying of a teenage boy in Childs Park the night before. The community must offer every opportunity to young people so they can avoid a life of criminal acts and permanent records.
Since District 70 is an ethnically and geographically diverse district, Newton said he would meet the needs of all its residents, just as he did for the city when he was councilman. As a former urban planner, Fiorini worked on “every type of social program you can think of,” he said, adding that he wrote a grant in Connecticut that established the office of Hispanic services, and stressed the importance of meeting the needs of residents of all ethnicities. Czaia said that as a criminal defense attorney, he has represented African Americans and Latinos and he knows all about injustice and what’s wrong in those communities.
Every year, Lucas said to the candidates, the legislature passes bills to limit women’s choice—what would the candidates do to stand up for women?
Newton affirmed that “it’s a woman’s body, it’s a woman’s right to do what she chooses to do” and he’s going to do all he can to keep things that way.
Fiorini said that one of the very first things he’s going to fight for in Tallahassee is the full funding and allocation of Planned Parenthood.
“The government should keep their nose out of the decisions between a doctor and the patient,” he averred.
Choice is a right of privacy, Czaia stated, adding that he’s a Democrat because he believes in freedom for the choice.
All three candidates are in favor of equal pay for women.
Fiorini said that he is a supporter of early education, explaining that the Head Start program is the “best bang for the dollar” that the U.S. taxpayer ever had, and supports mentoring programs for young people.
“A lot of kids today leave a house of despair and go to school and that’s their only oasis,” he explained, noting that he wants to expand that “oasis” with after school programs where mentoring is available to children.
Fiorini did state that he is “totally against” using public tax dollars to fund for-profit charter schools, and such money should go into the public school system. Czaia called education the foundation of democracy, but expressed his disappointment with the current state of education in Florida and the need for good teachers who are paid enough, and Newton, a product of area public schools himself, said there’s nothing wrong with the school system but with the funding.