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Keith Perry And Rod Smith Spar Over Guns On Campus, Other Topics In Debate At UF

Sign language interpreters assist the audience during a debate between Rod Smith (left) and Keith Perry (right) Tuesday night at UF's Reitz Union. (Catie Flatley/WUFT News)
Sign language interpreters assist the audience during a debate between Rod Smith (left) and Keith Perry (right) Tuesday night at UF's Reitz Union. (Catie Flatley/WUFT News)

Republican Keith Perry and Democrat Rod Smith took the stage Tuesday evening to give a 500-person audience at the University of Florida reasons as to why they should receive votes on Nov. 8.

The Accent Speaker’s Bureau and Student Government External Affairs hosted a debate between the two candidates running for the newly re-drawn Florida State Senate District 8 seat at the Reitz Union Ballroom.

Justin Sayfie, an attorney and government relations consultant based in Fort Lauderdale, moderated the event.

Some people in the audience were undecided voters that had come to get a better understanding on where they stood on the issues that matter the most to them.

“When I initially saw the advertising for Keith Perry, I could have sworn he was running as a Democrat because he just seemed very friendly about the environment and education, so then I saw he wasn’t — I said, 'OK I need to go to this debate and see what this is about,'" said Megan Newsome, a 20-year-old astronomy and physics student.

After the debate, Newsome said she is still conflicted about who should get her vote.

“I kind of looked at them and thought, I wish we could have them both. They have their merits to them,” Newsome said. “I didn’t agree with both of them on everything, but that’s OK. We don’t need legislators who agree with everything I say; I need legislators that seem to know how the process works and how to work with other people.”

In Smith and Perry’s opening statements, they addressed the youth of the audience and their future.

“This audience is the youngest set of voters and the decisions that we make over the next few years, the decisions will most impact you more than anyone else,” Smith said. “You will feel the impact for what we do in the areas of education, the funding of education, the kind of education you get and the value of the degree that you will receive.”

Perry, who will celebrate 40 years in business as a roofer next month, addressed the need for small businesses instead of corporately owned businesses.

“You know the stories about the first kid in the family to go to college? All right, I was the first kid in the family not to go to college,” Perry said.

When he was 17, Perry started his own business, Perry Roofing Contractors, right after high school.

“I thought about my opportunities as a young man starting a business and I thought about my two daughters and their friends and if they decided they wanted to be entrepreneurs, if they wanted to take a chance in the world, would they be able to do that?”

Perry said the shift in businesses and the careers people choose comes from a top-down centralized form of government versus an organic ground-up opportunity for young people.

Perry and Smith were asked for their stance on the cost of online classes and on-campus classes.

“We have to have a proper mix – a mix by which we suddenly don’t encourage everybody to go online,” Smith said.

Perry related this subject to his daughter, who he said moved two miles away to attend UF and to have a college experience. She was in the crowd, and he jokingly told her he wasn't bringing her Starbucks while she studied later that night.

“Part of the education is here. The interaction you have and the experience of being away, being in an apartment, meeting people, socializing and having that – that’s about the college experience,” Perry said.

The next question was where the two started to have their disagreements – that was gun control. Perry voted for the bill that allowed students to carry guns on campus.

“We know that criminals who are in town doing harm are not worried by the law, what they’re worried about is safety for themselves,” he said.

Smith said he thinks it’s a terrible idea to have guns on campus, a response that garnered immediate applause.

“The bigger idea is that you are inviting a tragedy,” Smith said.

Smith said having guns on campus is a question of whether or not you have the stamina to take on the NRA and tell them no. He said he would, and Perry would not.

“To suggest that I did something motivated by the NRA or any other group is factually wrong,” Perry responded.

Smith offered this rebuttal: “The proof is in the outcome. The NRA supported it, the university Board of Governors didn’t, law enforcement doesn’t, students didn’t want it, the NRA wanted it and that’s where he voted. That’s the evidence in the case.”

The debate was the second in which the candidates faced each other in a week. You can watch similar topics discussed here in WUFT's debate hosted on Facebook Live.

Catie is a reporter for WUFT News. She can be reached at news@wuft.org or 352-392-6397.