U.S. Rep. Greg Steube, R-SarasotaTwo Sarasota residents will represent Sarasota in Washington for the first time in history this fall, as attorney Greg Steube takes his name plate off the door at the Capitol and moves into the halls of Congress. One of multiple former JAG attorneys representing the region, Steube jumped at the chance this year to run for the U.S. House after 10-year incumbent Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee, announced his retirement. Steube describes the move to D.C. as the next phase in public service. "My entire adult life has been about service; I enlisted in the Infantry after September 11 because I wanted to serve my country in the war on terror,” Steube says. His family long held public service roles as well; father Brad Steube served for years as Manatee County Sheriff. Politically, Steube developed a reputation in Tallahassee as maybe the most ardent Second Amendment defender in Florida, sponsoring legislation to expand conceal carry rights and taking judges to court locally to establish a right for citizens to carry weapons even in local courthouses. 

Steube entered a heated Republican primary in District 17 this year against state Rep. Julio Gonzalez. R-Venice, and veterans advocate Bill Akins, one where opponents criticized the fact he lobbied Congress while still serving in the Florida Legislature. Florida allowed that at the time, but voters in November just approved a change to Florida’s constitution forbidding the practice moving forward. Still, Steube came out of the primary the easy favorite, winning 62 percent of the vote. Steube briefly suspended his campaign after the shock death of Democratic opponent April Freeman, then ultimately won 62 percent of the vote over replacement Democrat Allen Ellison. 

ILLUSTRATION BY WOODY WOODMAN.

Senate President Bill Galvano, R-BradentonWhile the Bradenton lawmaker didn’t have to run for re-election this year, Bill Galvano still spent Election Day anxious about his future. He’s been in line for the highest post in the Florida Senate for a good six years, but that all depended on Republicans keeping control of the Senate this year, and Democrats put up their strongest effort to retake the chamber since the late 1990s. But in the end, the GOP held onto its majority and Galvano in November formally took over the President’s office from Joe Negron. 

He also breathed easier at the knowledge Republicans would hold onto the Governor’s Mansion. “Our priorities are going to fit in nicely with DeSantis,” he says. For the moment, he’s hopeful there will be little friction with state Speaker of the House Jose Oliva, also a Republican. Yet, the possibility remains for fights over economic development, school safety, environmental research and a variety of issues that in recent sessions pitted the chambers against one another.

For the region, this marks the first time one of the Florida Legislature’s leaders hailed from the Gulf Coast since former state Sen. John McKay held the president’s gavel from 2000 through 2002. That means a seat at the biggest table—one that often just has room for the Senate president, Speaker and governor—when it comes to final budget decisions on local projects and legislative priorities. 

State Sen. Joe Gruters, R-SarasotaFew individuals played as great a role in Republican leadership in Sarasota as Joe Gruters. First a staffer and later a campaign manager for U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, he ultimately served as Republican Party of Sarasota chairman and helped bring the Donald Trump revolution to town as co-chair of the president’s Florida campaign, which headquartered in the city. But now, Gruters hangs up his hat and takes on a new role as state Senator.

“I loved serving as party chairman,” Gruters says, “but it would be much better for myself and the party to move on now.”

Gruters announced his intentions to run for state Senate in District 23 this year almost as soon as rumors began Greg Steube would seek a Senate seat. His presence on the ballot kept any other Republicans from running in the primary, impressive considering the seat drew five Republican candidates just two years prior.

Interestingly, Gruters in Tallahassee boasts a reputation as a moderate. After a single term in the Florida House, he bucked the NRA with his support of a school safety bill passed after the Parkland shooting, fought leadership (unsuccessfully) over funding Enterprise Florida and stands as one of the most staunch defenders of LGBT rights in the Republican caucus. But he remains a defender of charter schools and a promoter of pro-business policy. As one of 40 senators, expect him to use his role as a swing vote to greater impact than ever.

State Rep. Will Robinson, R-BradentonThe environment means more than politics to Bradenton attorney Will Robinson. His family donated land to Manatee County for the Robinson Preserve. And over a two-year campaign to succeed retired Rep. Jim Boyd in the state House representing District 71, Robinson made his love of the land a central campaign message. “I’ll increase focus on dealing with red tide and whatever we can do statewide, along with working on Lake Okeechobee,” he says.

Robinson’s top priority, he says, will be on workforce development, especially on making sure there’s both appropriate funding and proper promotion of trade school and technical colleges as an option for students seeking to enter the workforce directly after graduation. It’s an issue he stressed at length on the campaign trail, and it apparently won over voters, who elected Robinson with almost 56 percent of the vote over Democrat Tracy Pratt.

He goes to Tallahassee with a staunchly conservative record when it comes to social issues like gun control, though he’s reluctant to say whether he would have supported a school safety bill passed last year that drew opposition from the NRA for increasing gun-buying age. Knowing the desire to pass some kind of meaningful change after the Parkland shooting, Robinson doesn't judge lawmakers like his predecessor for supporting the bill, but wants to look further at the surrounding issues, including mental health treatment, when he gets to Tallahassee.

State Rep. Margaret Good, D-SarasotaMargaret Good in 2018 became the last person elected to the Florida Legislature for the 2016-18 session after she won a special election in state House District 72. But she returns to Tallahassee practically as the veteran lawmaker for Sarasota. The only Democrat who lives in Sarasota or Manatee County and represents a seat in the Legislature, the Sarasota attorney holds significant capital for flipping a seat from red to blue this year but remains in the political minority in Tallahassee. Still, she’s optimistic heading into the coming session.

“There is more that unites us than divides us,” she says, “and I will work hard to bridge the divide between what Floridians want and what we get from Tallahassee.” For Good, that means a continued focus on the environment, tackling problems like red tide and coastal pollution, as well as a staunch defense of public schools. She’s fought efforts in Tallahassee to boost vouchers and requirements to fund charter schools.

She also voted against a school safety bill last year because it didn’t go far enough, she says. Good would have preferred an assault weapon ban be considered, and language in the bill allowing more personnel on campuses to carry guns proved a poison pill.

But while Good came to office with a roar after beating Republican James Buchanan in February by more than 7 percent, she won her first full term in November with less than 51 percent of the vote over Republican Ray Pilon. Whether that impacts her votes remains to be seen.

State Rep. Tommy Gregory, R-SarasotaThe election cycle in District 73 could easily be divided into two periods: before the Melissa Howard scandal and after it. Sarasota attorney Tommy Gregory remained engaged in an expensive and caustic Republican primary with Howard though much of 2018. The former JAG attorney positioned himself as the social conservative in that race, while Howard ran on a pro-business platform. “I think the voters care the most about who is going to defend their rights,” he says. He dismissed Howard’s endorsement by the Florida Chamber of Commerce as backing from “entities who are focused on amnesty.” But publicly available polling at the time showed Howard winning.

Then news broke that Howard not only wrongly claimed to have graduated from Miami University in Ohio but that she doctored up a fake diploma for social media. After days of national ridicule, Howard in August left the race. Gregory technically won the GOP primary then. But he also got more votes than Howard in the election a few weeks later.

In a general election contest with Democrat Liv Coleman, the tone remained more civil and Gregory turned to issues like protecting the environment and boosting the economy. He and Coleman found common ground on easing high-stakes testing in the schools. He brushed off criticisms after holding a fundraiser at the home of someone who previously had been tied to nationalist groups. But he promises in the House to hear all voices. “What I find is voters’ needs are more complex than we sometimes give them credit for,” he says. 

State Rep. James Buchanan, R-SarasotaDespite his status as a political neophyte, no one can say James Buchanan arrives in Tallahassee untested. The real estate agent and son of Rep. Vern Buchanan announced his candidacy in 2017 for District 71 but backed out of a primary with Will Robinson there to run for a surprise special election in District 72. He lost that race in spectacular fashion to Margaret Good as the Democrat enjoyed a wash of national attention at peak anti-Trump fervor. Buchanan described the loss as “humbling.” But then state Rep. Julio Gonzalez announced he would vacate his District 73 seat and Buchanan got back in the mix.

Running in the district where he went to high school, Buchanan promised to combat sea level rise and defend Second Amendment rights. While his opponents—North Port Commissioner Linda Yates in the primary and Democratic attorney Tony Mowry in the general—dismissed his as a "carpetbagger" running on his father’s name, he impressed enough voters to coast to easy victories in August and November. 

As he heads to Tallahassee to represent the region, alongside Good among other lawmakers, he stressed the environment and his dedication to marine science. “As a young man I worked at Mote Marine Laboratory,” Buchanan says. “I took time on my weekends and I fed the manatees. It’s an issue that’s close to my heart.” He’d like more funding to the Sarasota lab to come from the state to better research red tide. But he also wants to see infrastructure connect North Port and Venice via River Road, something Gonzalez fought to fund for years, and he’d like to see better funding to promote the tourism aspects of South Sarasota County, especially as the region prepares to welcome Atlanta Braves spring training.