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In House District 35, Tom Keen has shown he’s ready to represent – Orlando Sentinel

Over the past few months, voters in Florida’s House District 35 have gotten to know Tom Keen. And they are seeing plenty to like, starting with the fact that he respects them and supports their priorities.

This Navy veteran is down-to-earth and steadfast in his moderate-Democratic, thoroughly sensible values. He has his eye on Florida’s real needs: Promoting better jobs that pay livable wages. Creating affordable-housing solutions that put Florida residents’ needs first. Promoting high-quality education and better access to health care. Fixing the mess made of the property insurance market. Stopping the slaughter that has led to thousands of Florida residents dying of gunshot wounds and COVID-19.

Booth, Keen win state House 35 special election primaries

Meanwhile Keen’s GOP opponent — Osceola School Board Member Erika Booth — must have  left District 35 voters wondering if they ever knew her at all. She certainly hasn’t given them much to go on. Instead, her campaign has focused on national issues and partisan slogans, while her mostly anonymous supporters fling as much deceptive mud on Keen as they can.

In this race, which people all over the state are watching as a potential bellwether for 2024, there’s an easy call. Voters can trust Keen to put their needs ahead of jingoistic partisan antics.

An abandoned district

Voting for Keen would be a fitting response to the confusing saga that led to this January special election in the first place. Fred Hawkins abandoned the district for a plum job as president of South Florida State College, a move that still has many scratching their heads. Gov. Ron DeSantis — who knew before anyone that he was about to create a vacancy — dilly-dallied for months in calling a special election. Mail balloting is underway, and early voting starts today through Jan. 14, with the election scheduled for Jan. 16.

Even if the new representative is sworn in immediately, District 35 voters will have nobody representing them in the state House of Representatives for at least two weeks of the nine-week legislative session.

DeSantis did them dirty. They need someone in Tallahassee who is ready for takeoff.

Keen is ready

Keen knows the district. As a decade-long, highly involved resident of Lake Nona and aerospace executive, he knows what it takes to build and support a healthy business environment and a flourishing community. On the important priorities confronting the state, he’s as well-prepared as any first-time candidate we’ve seen.

That includes a healthy dose of political pragmatism that will serve him well, working across the aisle in a Republican-dominated House. Here’s just one example: He accepts the reality that Florida has barreled down the road of school choice, recklessly expanding vouchers that draw billions from public schools.

Democrats have little chance of unringing that school bell — but they can, and should, work to bring more accountability and transparency to the “schools without rules” that often sell children’s needs short.

“Choice is not choice when parents aren’t provided with the information” they need to make the best decisions, he told the Orlando Sentinel during the primary. It will be hard for anyone to argue with that. He was also well-prepared with solid plans to address the impact of climate change and Florida’s continued growth, and steadfast in his advocacy for reproductive rights.

Just partisan chatter

Booth, on the other hand, has given District 35 voters almost no information about what she hopes to accomplish if elected.

We’ve had no response to requests to talk about what she believes on state issues, and she  still appears confused about what office she’s seeking. Most of her communications have talked more about immigration, border security and other issues that Florida legislators can’t do much about. ​

Many thought she was staying away from Florida-based concerns​,​ using the GOP primary to sputter about national issues and then taking an opportunity to pivot center for the general election in this blue-leaning district. Turns out we gave her campaign and the party way too much credit.

Booth continues to use her own social media to sputter about Joe Biden and chant “woke, woke, woke” as often as she can. What relevance does that have to District 35 voters looking for a state lawmaker who puts their needs first?

Meanwhile, voters in this district could make a “Spot The Lie” board game of ugly, deceptive mailers sent out on her behalf by special-interest groups and scurrilous, anonymous websites, because almost nothing they’ve said about Keen is actually true. Some of the attacks don’t even manage to spell his name right.

We’ll grant Booth this much: As a member of the Osceola County School Board (sliding into the seat left vacant when her husband ran for the County Commission) she was … not terrible. But her campaign ​doesn’t even rise to that level..

If this is a preview for other Fall 2024 races, Republicans are in trouble.

Keen focus on needs

But District 35 voters don’t have to worry about that. They need to pick the right person to represent their interests, right now. Keen’s ready. He’s not coasting on a familiar name and connections to Osceola County elites.

He’s done the work to fight for this district, and he’s not afraid to let voters know where he stands and what he would fight to accomplish. Booth may believe she’s entitled to voters’ support​. She may take their trust for granted. ​But Keen has worked hard to earn both.

The Orlando Sentinel endorses Tom Keen for House District 35.

We urge voters to not rely solely on our opinions in deciding how to cast a vote. Voters should check the candidates’ campaign websites and social media accounts (if they don’t have either, that should be a red flag). Ask friends and neighbors what they think. Google the candidates and go to the state’s website  to see who’s giving money to their campaigns.

The Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board consists of Opinion Editor Krys Fluker, Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson and Viewpoints Editor Jay Reddick. Contact us at insight@orlandosentinel.com.

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