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Panhandle House District Won't Have Representation During Legislative Session

Former Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, talks to Rep. Halsey Beshears, R-Monticello, Tuesday April 4, 2017 on the floor of the House at the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Phil Sears)
Former Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, talks to Rep. Halsey Beshears, R-Monticello, Tuesday April 4, 2017 on the floor of the House at the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Phil Sears)

The Florida House district hit hardest by Hurricane Michael won’t have a representative until after this year’s legislative session.

Gov. Ron DeSantis called a special election for Rep. Halsey Beshears', R-Monticello, District 7 seat after appointing him as secretary of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation. As of Friday’s qualifying deadline for the special election, one Democrat and four Republicans have entered the race.

Republicans on April 9 will hold a primary. The general election won’t take place until June 18, leaving the district without representation in the House during the legislative session March 5 to May 3.

District 7 includes Calhoun, Franklin, Gulf, Jefferson and Lafayette counties, as well as parts of Leon, Liberty, Madison, Taylor and Wakulla counties, many of which suffered significant damage from Hurricane Michael. 

Much of state Sen. Bill Montford’s (D-Tallahassee) District 3 overlaps with House District 7. Montford said he and Beshears were the only legislators responsible for most of the counties in their districts.

In Beshears' absence, he said other House representatives have used a portion of the six bills they are allowed to introduce per session to help the Panhandle. 

"Some of our colleagues in the House have stepped forward and offered their slots to help cover a good bit of North Florida,” Montford said.

Tallahassee Democrat Ryan Terrell said he considered not running because he knew it meant there wouldn’t be a legislator from his district at this year’s session. However, he said by the time any of the Republican candidates won, the deadline for introducing bills would have passed.

Terrell qualified a minute before the deadline due to a paperwork error, he said.

He said Beshears should have resigned sooner after he was appointed to allow the district more time for a special election.

While awaiting the outcome of the Republican primary, Terrell said he’s working with lawmakers to push legislation that would benefit the district.

He declined to share which bills he is targeting but said hurricane-specific legislation should include streamlining the process of insurance claims, funding agricultural relief and improving access to preventive care.

Perry Republican candidate Virginia Fuller said she wishes she was already in office to guide conversations that affect constituents such as regulations on septic tanks in rural areas.

“Our district is at a disadvantage not being at the table,” she said.

Fuller questioned DeSantis' selection process for filling his cabinet seats.

“Why did he elect elected officials to these positions? It’s something he should have considered.”

Without a representative for District 7, the House has still appropriated almost $400 million of the budget to hurricane relief, including a $25 million project to restore Mexico Beach.

Terrell said the hurricane isn’t a partisan issue and acknowledged the Republican candidates are also prioritizing storm recovery.  

The other Republican candidates who qualified for the special election include Jason Shoaf, vice president of St. Joe Natural Gas Company, Mike Watkins, CEO of Big Bend Community Based Care and Lynda Bell, the former mayor of Homestead.

As of Friday Watkins and Shoaf have raised the most money, $150,844.85 and $50,200 respectively, according to campaign finance records.

Bell and Fuller have not raised any campaign funds.

Terrell has raised $217 in contributions.

Meryl is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.