Florida Democrats hoping the fight over Medicaid expansion and the sequester would win them support with those who depend on federal funding won’t find much encouragement in Tuesday’s special election for House District 2.
In the first referendum since House Republicans bypassed more than $50 billion in federal aid for health care, Mike Hill, a 55-year-old tea party Republican insurance agent, won 57.9 percent of the vote in a Northwest Florida district that has an economy dominated by hospitals as well as the military -- which is weathering a sequester deal rife with budget cuts forced by congressional Republicans.
Hill’s Democratic opponent, Jeremy Lau, mustered 42.1 percent of the vote in a special election held after Rep. Clay Ford died in March. Lau, a 40-year-old aircraft mechanic for L-3 Com Vertex Aerospace, a military contractor at Pensacola Naval Station, had made Medicaid expansion his No. 1 issue.
“The failure of the Legislature to expand Medicaid has cost our district jobs,” Lau said. “It’s a huge issue here.”
A University of Florida study concluded that expansion of Medicaid would create an average of 1,619 full-time and part-time jobs in Escambia County annually over the next 10 years and help provide coverage for county’s residents, 20 percent of whom don’t have health insurance.
But Lau couldn’t overcome the district’s conservative demographics (Mitt Romney won 59 percent of the vote here in 2012) and Hill’s overwhelming financial advantage. The district, which covers parts of Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, leans so hard right that no Democrat ran in either 2010 or 2012 against Ford. Hill raised $200,000 compared to Lau’s $29,500, getting plenty of help from the GOP, which chipped in $51,000. Democrats could manage only $1,090 for Lau.
Hill also made the Medicaid expansion a key issue, but as a way to spruce up his conservative credentials.
“I’m so proud of Speaker (Will Weatherford) and the House for turning that down,” Hill said. “We can’t afford that in Florida.”
Hill, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, becomes the first black Republican in the Florida House since Jennifer Carroll served there between 2003 and 2010. He’s also the first black legislator from Northwest Florida since Reconstruction.
“I know the historical significance,” Hill said. “But it doesn’t matter to me if I’m the first black this or that. I don’t want to be chosen based on my skin color. I want to be chosen based on my character and my value system.”
Hill founded the Northwest Florida Tea Party in 2010. He summarizes his value system succinctly: “Limited government, low taxes, personal freedom and individual responsibility.”
He said he will aim to eliminate the corporate tax rate, reduce the state sales tax and eliminate rules and regulations for business.
“People want jobs, they want business to expand,” Hill said.
He lists his net worth, as of April 1, at $1.1 million, deriving about $424,000 a year from his State Farm Insurance agency. He makes another $8,000 a year sitting on the board of Pride Enterprises, which is a St. Petersburg company that makes state license plates using prison inmates. Hill said he supports the program as a board member, but said that as a legislator, he will evaluate the contract independently of his association with PRIDE. Upon running, however, he did step down from his board position with Integrity Florida, a public watchdog group in Tallahassee.
This is the first elected office held by Hill, who ran and lost in 2010 a senate race against Greg Evers. He recently got a shout-out from MSNBC talking head Joe Scarborough for his support in his congressional campaigns from the early 1990s.
Hill is new to District 2. He moved last week to a Pensacola Beach condo so he could qualify. Florida law requires candidates to live in the district upon getting elected. Hill said he actually lived in Ford’s district, but was drawn out of it when the boundaries were reconfigured last year.
He will have a year more in the Legislature than the next class of rooking lawmakers, giving him a headstart in the race for House Speaker. Other recent “red-shirt” freshmen to become speakers or speaker designates are Marco Rubio, who served as speaker in 2008 and 2009, and Jose Oliva, who is designated to become speaker in 2018.
But Hill wouldn’t say if he will vie for the Speaker job in 2020.
“I don’t know what it means to be Speaker,” Hill said. “I don’t know if it’s something I want.”
In a statement from the Republican Party of Florida, Weatherford welcomed Hill.
"Representative Hill will be a strong voice for limited government and individual liberty," Weatherford stated.
"His election sends a clear message that Floridians want smaller government, lower taxes, and the freedom to pursue the American Dream," said Rep. Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, in a statement. "Representative Hill will be a strong conservative voice in our caucus."
Crisafulli, who is set to become Speaker in 2014, shares political consultants with Hill: Meteoric Media Strategies, founded by former Gov. Rick Scott spokesmen Brian Hughes and Brian Burgess.