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Florida Votes 2016: State Senate District 8

Keith Perry, left, and Rod Smith are running for Florida State Senate, District 8.
Keith Perry, left, and Rod Smith are running for Florida State Senate, District 8.

This November may bring a presidential election, but it also brings local elections, too. Florida’s state Senate district 8, recently re-drawn to encompass Alachua, Putnam and the northern part of Marion County, is up for election with Democrat Rod Smith and Republican Keith Perry running and hauling in a bunch of cash. Together, the two campaigns have fundraised more than $1.2 million.

Rod Smith

Rod Smith, 66, is originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and graduated from the University of Tulsa. He moved to Forest Grove in the 1970s to attend the University of Florida Levin College of Law and graduated in 1975. Smith has been here every since.

Smith served as the 8th Judicial Circuit State Attorney from 1993-2000. In 2000 he joined the firm now known as Avera & Smith and is a partner there. Smith represented the old state Senate District 14 from 2000 to 2006. He also ran — unsuccessfully — for governor in 2010.

When the district was re-drawn, a move Smith was in favor of, he made the decision to take part in local politics again, mostly, he says, to make a better future for his family.

“I was very frustrated by what was going on in Tallahassee,” Smith said. “The partisanship is ridiculous. The influence of the special interests is preclusive. So I thought it was the right time to do this.”

Smith is a member of Forest Grove Baptist Church, PACE Center for Girls and the Child Advocacy Center.

Smith’s campaign has raised $646,740.65 as of October 1, according to Florida Department of State Division of Elections.

Keith Perry

Keith Perry, 57, has lived in Gainesville since high school. Just before graduating from F.W. Buchholz High School in 1976, Perry started his own roofing company, Perry Roofing, a business that once boasted 5 offices and 220 employees. With a hit from the mid-2000s housing crisis and then a push from a friend in the state House, Perry turned to politics.

In 2010, Perry ran for state representative of District 22 and won. When districts were redrawn in 2012, he ran for District 21 and remains its representative.

Perry said his focus is where it was back in 2010: helping small businesses.

“I started really thinking about: 40 years ago, almost all the businesses in Gainesville were owned by individuals,” Perry said. “The overwhelming majority were owned by mom and pop, or individuals. Today, the overwhelming majority are corporations.”

Perry was involved in a well-publicized incident involving a campaign sign in early September, but was not charged.

Perry has been arrested before —  some 30 years ago — for cocaine drug paraphernalia. His arrest fueled his charitable organization House of Hope, which rehabilitates ex-felons.

Perry’s campaign has raised $583,985.09 as of October 1, according to Florida Department of State Division of Elections.

Where they stand on...


When it comes to jobs, both candidates are looking to create more in the community.

As a small business owner, Perry sees the growth of business as the answer. With decreased government regulation, Perry said, more small businesses would pop up.

"So if the government," he said, "through regulatory and legal reform, made it simpler for people to start and maintain a business, people would start and maintain businesses and things would grow."

Perry looks to post-World War II Hong Kong for a model of regulation-free business environment leading to a booming city.

Smith, on the other hand, sees government playing a larger role, with investments in infrastructure bringing more job opportunities. Smith points to past investments in the distribution centers brought to Alachua County as an example of this.

The environment and agriculture

Smith opposes fracking, and he is a strong proponent of renewable energy.

"Florida needs to move as the country is inevitably moving, as the world is inevitably moving, away from the degree to which we depend on fossil fuel."

Preservation of land plays a role in his agenda, as Smith believes one day the only undeveloped land will be protected lands. Protection of wildlife habitats is needed for the future, Smith said.

Smith sees agricultural acreage declining in District 8, but the use of technology keeping the economy going. Smith has woes of the greening crisis, and wishes to have stopped in sooner, but believes UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) will play a key role in prevention of similar issues.

“I think we will continue to have a vibrant economy and agriculture will be a major sector of that in this district," said Smith. "Our support of IFAS and the research that’s being done at IFAS is critically important.”

Perry, who voted in favor of a fracking bill this year, said it’s not an issue of water quantity, but rather quality, thanks to the amount of rain Florida sees each year.

Perry just has one question: “How do we take existing water and protect it and store it?”

Agriculture in the district is a positive, Perry says, including local food as a product that is created to be sold.

“I think agriculture is overlooked as a huge benefit from a economic standpoint. It provides a huge influx of cash to the area,” Perry said.


One of Perry’s central campaign platforms is music and arts in education. During his time in the state House, Perry worked to keep music programs in public schools.

“We’ve seen music and arts be deleted in a lot of curriculum. I pushed a bill last year to have music in elementary education as a curriculum, starting with just K through 2.”

Perry sees the creativity in people, and works to make sure it isn’t stifled, both by corporations and schools, he said.

As for Common Core, Perry is against it, but is in favor of standardized testing. And while he says teachers should be paid more, Perry believes they should still be partially compensated based on testing scores.

Smith sees improvement of school systems as a way to better prepare the workforce, including both community colleges and public schools.

“The kinds of employers that come here are people who have specialized needs, and we’ve got to be able to adjust to provide a work force that meets those specialized needs,” Smith said.

Smith sees many problems in the area’s public schools, including Common Core, standardized testing and teacher compensation. Smith is opposed to both students and teachers being graded based solely on these scores.

Legislative priorities

As senator, Smith's top three legislative priorities would be: increasing investments in schools and universities, addressing a lack of infrastructure, and getting a National Cancer Institute designation for UF Health Shands.

“I was an independent voice; I will be again. Nobody owns me, nobody rents me, everybody has access. When you call, my job is to call you back. My job is to see if you can help you that we do.”

Perry’s top three legislative priorities are music and arts in education; business regulation; and tort reform and property rights.

“I don’t think there’s very many people in the legislative process that are blue collar — gives you a different perspective when you work with your hands.”

This story is part of our guide, Florida Votes 2016, leading up to the Nov. 8 election.  Check your voter registration status here.

Virginia is a reporter for WUFT News.