Tiger Bay Quizzes Gruters on Policy, Johnson on Residency

Todays News

It’s unusual for a candidate with a homestead on the opposite side of Florida to run to represent Sarasota in the Florida Legislature. But Michael Johnson, a Republican challenging state Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, for his seat, said you sometimes don’t get to live where you want.

He told a Tiger Bay audience last week he’s wanted since the 1980s to live in Sarasota, and has brought his children to kayak the rivers and visit the Circus Museum. But after house-sitting his son’s home in Seminole County, he’s ready to come to the Gulf Coast full time.

“I did have a chance to come here, and that’s why I am here today to live here and to help this community,” he said.

Gruters, for his part, stressed the importance of knowing a community and its leaders.

“Whether it be Selby Gardens, the Education Foundation or one of our schools, we do battle up there every day,” Gruters said of time in the Legislature. “Some people say it’s 60 days of work a year but I tell people it’s six months worth of work serving in the state Senate and you really have to be passionate about your community.”

With Johnson deciding to run only after he had an internal party dispute with Seminole County Republican leaders, one where Gruters as chairman of the Republican Party of Florida sided with those leaders over grassroots activists, the question of whether Johnson served as a carpetbagger in the race rose repeatedly.

Gruters and Johnson now face each other in an Aug. 23 Republican primary, and with no other candidates running, the primary will be open to all voters in Senate District 22. Tiger Bay moderator Kevin Cooper asked what voters outside the Republican Party may want to consider from the candidates, both of whom have been heavily involved in partisan politics. 

Gruters said he maintains strong relationships in the Legislature with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, and encouraged voters talk to former state Rep. Margaret Good, a Democrat, about how well the two worked together in the past. “To pass a bill is very difficult. In the four years I have been a senator, I passed 51 bills on a variety of different subjects,” he said.

Johnson characterized some of that deal-making in Tallahassee. “Millions and millions of dollars are being raked in by politicians around the state here,” he said. “And then they use it to write off the candidates that are trying to run for office to replace them. That’s the big corruption in Tallahassee right now.”

When Tiger Bay members has a chance to ask questions, many simply quizzed candidates on basic knowledge of the community. Johnson said he had not memorized the names of nonprofits in the area, and mostly took issue with the number in the state relying on state funding.

“There’s some organizations I come across in the state of Florida that collect the money by the millions and only two cents goes to the private person,” he said. “We’re going to look at those things and those kinds of individuals, organizations that take people’s money and don’t give it back to the community… I won’t support those kinds of people, but I will support the ones that actually give money back to the constituents.”

But he did not name a nonprofit organization he thinks either positively or negatively about in the district. 

Gruters defended controversial votes on redistricting and bans on critical race theory in schools. He said a congressional map designed by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ staff was “constitutionally sufficient, and that he played no role in its creation before voting for it on the Senate floor. When a question arose about teacher concerns about restrictions on teaching about race and about a new limits on corporate diversity training, Gruters defended the new law. “I'm not going to take it away,” he said. “At the end of the day, I believe that no race is inherently superior to another race and nobody should feel bad about their background.”

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