The Republican primary campaign between Mike Weinstein and Aaron Bean for a newly redrawn Jacksonville seat in the Florida Senate this summer is really a political proxy fight for a future Senate presidency.
Weinstein, founder of the legislative Tea Party Caucus, has a sort of home-field advantage in District 4 because 85 percent of the voters live in Duval County. But Bean boasts a hat trick of major endorsements — the National Rifle Association, the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce and ex-Gov. Jeb Bush — in his well-financed bid for a political comeback.
“The thing that makes it really exciting is, it’s really a race about who’s going to be the Senate president,” said Tom Slade, a former state GOP chairman and long-ago senator who backs Bean.
Senate President-designate Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and Sen. John Thrasher of St. Augustine, another state Republican chairman and former House speaker, are supporting Bean — who will support Sen. Joe Negron, R-Palm City, Thrasher’s choice for Senate president in 2016. If Weinstein wins, he is expected to support Negron’s rival, Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater.
In terms of Senate intrigue, it’s not unusual to have leadership struggles not one, not two, but three Senate presidencies in advance. Gaetz, Thrasher, the incoming House leadership and the state party have taken an unprecedented role in this year’s Aug. 14 primaries, steering millions of dollars to favored GOP contenders.
“Bean, in my opinion, is the more appealing candidate,” said Slade, a GOP insider with credentials back to the party’s wilderness years of the 1960s, “but he doesn’t have the hometown advantage.”
Weinstein, an assistant state attorney for 18 years, has deep Jacksonville roots. He was chief financial officer to former Mayors Ed Austin and John Delaney, director of the city’s Economic Development Commission and CEO of the Jacksonville Super Bowl Host Committee.
He served on Gov. Rick Scott’s transition team and has the backing of Scott campaign manager Susie Wiles, but Weinstein said the governor is staying out of Republican primary races.
“I think the governor was so offended by the party establishment working so hard against him in the primary of 2010 that he decided to keep himself and his office out of all primaries this year,” Weinstein said. “I’m facing the same uphill effort that Gov. Scott did, with some of the party’s top leaders working against me.”
Some other prominent Republicans are not so reticent. Attorney General Pam Bondi backs Weinstein, while Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam support Bean.
Weinstein, 63, was elected to the House in 2008 and this year’s redistricting put him in the same tract with a friend, Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, so he switched to the Senate race in April.
“We’re both conservatives and we’d both vote pretty much the same way most of the time,” Weinstein said, comparing himself and Bean. “The difference is that my life’s experiences and knowledge are about Duval County, while his life’s experiences and knowledge have been about Fernandina Beach.”
Weinstein said the Tea Party Caucus, which he helped form after Scott’s election, “has had a string of successful efforts to lower the amount of regulation, lower the corporate tax and have a movement toward a more pro-life state.”
Bean, 45, was term-limited out of the House in 2008. He boasts an “A” grade from the Florida Chamber of Commerce for this voting record, along with the Christian Coalition’s “Faith and Family” award. He said his record in the Bush administration included help with reforming the state’s Medicaid program and being part of the House leadership under Thrasher and then-Speaker Marco Rubio.
Bean, a development officer for Shands Jacksonville and co-owner of an insurance company, was a city commissioner and mayor of Fernandina Beach before his legislative service. He agreed that he and Weinstein are both very conservative, “but it’s a question of who’s going to be more effective.” And although he’s from Nassau County, he said he grew up, lived and worked in Jacksonville all his life — unlike Weinstein, who moved to Florida from New Jersey in 1975.
“Although my address doesn’t say ‘Jacksonville,’ I feel very much part of the community,” said Bean. He said the Bush endorsement shows who’s the most conservative choice for a district that went Republican by more than 60 percent in the races for governor and all three Cabinet seats two years ago.
“He’s one of the most important figures in the conservative community,” Bean said of the former governor. “He resonates so well with conservatives.”
Campaign finance reports filed last week showed Bean’s campaign had raised just under $400,000. Weinstein had raised $212,536 — plus $150,000 of his own money, lent to the campaign.
“I know the groups out of Tallahassee will definitely spend more money than I can ever get,” Weinstein said. “What will win it are the local people who will vote, especially in Duval County.”
The Republican nominee faces Democrat Nancy Soderberg in November. She is a former ambassador who worked in the Clinton administration as a deputy assistant on national security and alternate representative to the United Nations.
by Bill Cotterell