Democrat Tom Keen: ‘We’re going to see some big changes come November.’

Image via Tom Keen Campaign Design: Desirée Tapia

By Giselle Balido

January 29, 2024

Party leaders say recent victories signal the onset of a Democratic resurgence that could effect a sea-change in the Sunshine State in the next election cycle.

On Jan. 16, Orlando Democrat Tom Keen (D-Lake Nona) won a seat in the Florida House of Representatives that in 2022 went to Republicans by more than 11 points. Democrats across the state celebrated the victory. 

“What you saw not only in the (Jacksonville) mayor’s race [won by Democrat Donna Deegan in 2023] and our great victory last night, is that our Democratic base is motivated,” said Nikki Fried, Florida Democratic Party chair, via Zoom. “But more importantly, we’re also getting across-the-aisle crossover from independents and moderate Republicans who are no longer buying on what the Republicans are selling.”

Floricua spoke with Rep. Keen–who received endorsements from Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.), state House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell (D) and Planned Parenthood PAC, among others–to address his victory and what it might mean for the Democratic Party as a whole, as well as the issues impacting Floridians across the state. 

For more than 20 years Florida has been under a Republican government. In your opinion, what has that brought to the Sunshine State?

I think what’s happened is that we’re out of balance and, because we’re out of balance, there’s been no check on what Republicans have been doing for the last 20 years. I think my election shows that, understandably, people want their voice to be heard and they’re upset that we’ve seen things in the legislature for the last few years that are a result of unchecked power. 

Do you think people are beginning to see the direct link between who is elected to office and the laws that affect the quality of their lives?

Well, I thought about it a lot. The reason why we’re having the so-called “culture wars” is because Republicans could not bring to the table real solutions to those economic problems that folks had. And so, this was a shining ball to distract folks from the fact that insurance rates, housing affordability and other things, like women’s reproductive freedom, were not being met by the legislature. So, I think [voters] have seen through that now and I think now we’re going to see some big changes come November.

In your opinion what are the top priority issues that you see affecting Floridians right now?

I heard from voters when I was running, knocking on doors, making phone calls and texting to literally tens of thousands of voters in house district 35, that the issues that I ran on–women’s reproductive freedom and soaring property insurance rates–were the two key issues that they’re very interested in getting answers from Tallahassee. 

You have called prohibitive housing and property insurance costs “kitchen table issues” that are top of the list for Floridians. What have DeSantis and Republican legislators done specifically to create this situation?

Well, take housing affordability. I would like to let your audience know that even if they rent, they are also paying those high property insurance rates; they’re just paying it via the landlord, as opposed to directly to an insurance company. So, it’s reflective of high rents. Housing affordability is linked directly to those high insurance rates. And we’re the highest in the nation right now. 

What is the reason for that, in your opinion?

I think the real reason for that is that this is hard work. It’s not an easy thing to get insurance rates under control. We basically listen to the insurance companies up here in Tallahassee and the legislature has taken everything that they’ve said for gospel. They believe everything the insurance company tells them. They don’t provide any oversight and they allow them to, basically, run unchecked. So, we need to start listening to consumers and understand that their voices should be heard up here and then we’ll get our rates under control.

Compounding the housing affordability crisis is the state Republican legislators’ refusal to raise the minimum wage. What do you think about that?

Another step that we took, and again, the legislature didn’t do this, they actually fought against it, was raising the minimum wage. And so, when you look at housing affordability and you are making $12 an hour, it’s tough. You have to have two or three roommates to, you know, pay the rent and put food on your table. So, for a working family, raising the minimum wage was very, very important because it does raise other hourly wages as well. So, if the minimum comes up a little bit, other wages will also rise and hopefully that will make housing affordability and livability in Florida better. Fortunately, we have the constitutional amendment and we’re getting it raised year by year, but it makes it really tough. 

RELATED: Democrat Donna Deegan Makes History, Becomes First Female Mayor of Jacksonville

Republicans continue to blame the Biden administration for Florida’s economic woes. Yet Gov. DeSantis keeps rejecting federal funds to fix some of those problems, such as Medicaid expansion. Why do you think he leaves those funds on the table?

Well, I think he was playing presidential politics. He was trying to prove something; to make political points. But in fact, Floridians are suffering for that. So, we have $4 billion worth of Medicaid expansion dollars that could come in from the federal government, but we’re going to spend a billion dollars of Floridians’ money on this Live Healthy program that they want to put in place in Tallahassee this year. It’s going to cost us a billion dollars, or we’re going to get $4 billion from the federal government to expand Medicaid [and that costs us nothing].

There’s also no question that our healthcare providing numbers are low and we need to put people into those jobs. And Medicaid expansion would allow us to do that. But again, we’re not getting it. Instead, we’re getting this other thing that’s costing us a billion dollars. So, I think our priorities are out of whack. And 41 other states have figured it out. Florida should join those 41.

RELATED: Video: Florida Representative Fentrice Driskell’s Message to Young Voters

The State Supreme Court is currently deciding on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ 15-week abortion ban. If it is upheld, then the six-week ban would go into effect 30 days later. What kind of impact do you think this would have on Florida women, their families and communities?

Well, it will have a huge negative impact, obviously. I ran on reproductive freedom.

I believe women’s health care should be a woman’s decision; you know, it is bodily autonomy, it should be her decision to make on her own body. Right now, the Florida Supreme Court is going to come out with a decision. It could be next week, it could be next month, it could be tomorrow. When that happens, 30 days later, I believe the six-week ban goes into effect and that is very chilling. I think the number of women that are cared for by the clinics is in excess of 80,000 people; that is going to come to a screeching halt. Women’s health care will be at risk, and we need to push back as hard and vigorously as possible. We need to support that constitutional amendment that’s making its way also to the Florida Supreme Court, so that we can get that on the ballot in November.

Speaking of the ballot measure, are you worried about partisan judges blocking the effort? And if so, what would be next, for abortion rights in Florida?

Well, I’m not in the Supreme Court right now and I certainly, you know, don’t want to be prejudging what they’ll come up with. I do believe it’s an important issue. I do believe that when voters decide on constitutional amendments that we should get these things through.

So, I’m looking more toward our attorney general [Ashley Moody] who is basically appealing to the Florida Supreme Court to say that the language [on the ballot] is vague, and it is not vague. It’s clear everybody knows exactly what is meant by the language. So, I look to the Attorney general as the problem, not to the Supreme Court. 

After dropping out of the presidential race, Gov. DeSantis posted a video on X where he promised that Florida will continue to “lead and be an example for the rest of the country.” What does that say to you?

When we hear the governor talk about things like that, that rhetoric is not helpful. It doesn’t help working families here in Florida. So, I will be an advocate up here in Tallahassee for the folks in House District 35. I do believe that we need to stand for working people in the state. We need to be that voice and then hopefully that will also help us get out of the super minority that we’re in today come November and we can push back.

You won a seat that in 2022 went to Republicans by more than 11 points. What does that signal to you?

Well, I think what it signals is that the Democratic Party can win. Voters are tired of empty promises. And so now we have an opportunity to get our voice heard and make sure the voters know what we stand for. And if we’re able to do that, I think we will rapidly come out of the super minority. Voters are tired of Republican rhetoric; they are tired of culture wars, and they want real solutions to real problems, for example, on property insurance rates. So maybe Republicans will come to the table to bargain and get these insurance rates in check. But if they don’t, I think we’ll see some real change come November. 

 

Author

  • Giselle Balido

    Giselle is Floricua's political correspondent. She writes about the economy, environmental and social justice, and all things Latino. A published author, Giselle was born in Havana and grew up in New Jersey and Miami. She is passionate about equality, books, and cats.

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