Republican state Rep. Thad Altman and GOP primary challenger Matt Nye sit down with FLORIDA TODAY’s Editorial Board ahead of the Aug. 18 primary election.
Two candidates with backgrounds in education will square off for the House District 50 seat in the November election , but the Republican and Democrat nonetheless have much to disagree on.
Current Rep. Rene Plasencia, a 47-year-old Republican, taught at Colonial High School in Orlando for 15 years and coached high school track and cross country. It’s so central to his identity that he still uses the nickname “Coach P”; it appears on his page on the Florida House of Representative site and appears more often than his full name on his campaign materials.
His Democrat challenger, Nina Yoakum, 61, is a former full-time substitute teacher with Orange County Public schools. She’s never held public office but she has participated in political advocacy, especially with issues related to education.
According to her website, Yoakum has advocated against school overcrowding and overuse of standardized testing and worked through local organizations including the parent teacher organization and school advisory council for Avalon Elementary, Avalon Middle and Timber Creek High schools.
Yoakum disagrees with Plasencia’s voting record on education, criticizing a bill he worked on that raised teacher minimum salaries to $47,500. She’d like to see veteran teachers’ salaries raised as well and considered it unfair to raise the floor for incoming employees without extending the same benefits to those more experienced.
The bill in question, signed into law in June, also set aside funds to pay for raises for teachers who already make more than the minimum, but not so much: of the $500 million in funds the bill provides, only $100 million goes toward those raises.
“That’s highly unfair to the teachers that have tenure and I think they are the teachers that actually deserve the raises the most because they’re been there the longest and they’ve put in their blood, sweat and tears over all these years,” Yoakum said.
Also on the topic of wages, Yoakum said she would like to see Florida’s comparatively low unemployment benefits expanded. Florida provides a maximum of $275 per week for up to 12 weeks for a total maximum benefit of $3,300. The average payout for states in the U.S. is near $380 per week, and some of those recipients are eligible for up to 26 weeks of benefits.
If anyone suggests shoring up unemployment benefits isn’t a good use of state money, “I would ask them to go out and try to live off of $275 a week for three months and come back and talk to me about that not being a good use of our money right now,” Yoakum said.
Yoakum founded the Network for Gun Safety, an organization that advocates for “common-sense gun safety legislation.” She’s been critical of a 2019 Florida bill that allowed teachers to carry weapons inside schools, saying she wouldn’t feel safer if one of her own children were in a classroom where the teacher carried a gun.
“I don’t want to take away people’s guns or get rid of the Second Amendment,” she said. “But we need more gun legislation to make us all be safer.”
Plasencia voted yes on the 2019 bill. He holds a B- grade from the National Rifle Association, having lost his A grade by voting in favor of a 2018 bill introduced after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that killed 27 people. That bill banned bump stocks and raised the minimum age to purchase a firearm from 18 to 21, among other restrictions, and was supported by many Republicans.
One of Plasencia’s chief concerns is the availability of jobs in Florida, he said. He fears increasing automation will shrink the job market. Businesses are replacing people with technology to aid in social distancing, he said, and he fears those jobs won’t come back after the pandemic.
“You’re seeing now a lot of hotels where you can check in on your cell phone, and you go directly to your room and you can open the door using some kind of app on your phone,” Plasencia said. “And that’s just one example of how automation is changing the work environment.”
“Micro-crendentials” are a potential aid to workers during these times, Plasencia said. That form of education allows workers more flexibility because they can pick up one skill at a time and expand their opportunities instead of exiting or delaying joining the workforce.
He also wants to address availability and affordability in healthcare. Recently he worked on a bill to allow some nurse practitioners to work independently of physicians in a primary care setting.
“The biggest thing we need right now is people, especially people who can’t afford health care or maybe don’t have insurance, need a lower cost of care,” Plasencia said. “Not to mention the fact as well that in some areas you may have a clinic that’s a couple of hundred miles away from the nearest hospital or doctor’s office, and the only person in that clinic is the nurse practitioner, there is no physician.”
Yoakum said she’s a better pick because she’s “older and wiser” than Plasencia and pledged to be more available to voters.
Plasencia said Yoakum doesn’t have the same credentials as he does because she worked as a substitute teacher, which he said isn’t the same experience as working full time.
He also said he’d point undecided voters to his success in working with Democrats across the aisle to pass important legislation. He pointed to his vote in favor expanding Medicaid.
“I did all the research independently to find out whether or not I should or should not vote on Medicaid expansion,” he said. “Overwhelming research led me to believe that we should expand Medicaid in the state of Florida, so I voted to expand Medicaid and that was wonderful news for Republicans in the House.”
Yoakumwants voters to be skeptical. She said her opponent is actually a Republican through-and-through, not a moderate, and will vote accordingly once he’s in office.
“I’m running against a Republican, and I need to make that clear,” she said. “When he gets back to Tallahassee he votes as a Republican.”
Bailey Gallion is the business and development reporter for FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Gallion at 321-242-3786 or email@example.com.
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