Lisa Miller was re-elected to a second term on the nonpartisan Polk County School Board today, leading runoff opponent Jill Sessions 56% to 44% in a race that saw the challenger championing conservative culture war issues.
Republicans won all of the local partisan races on a day when GOP candidates swept statewide offices, including returning Ron DeSantis to the Governor’s Mansion and Marco Rubio to the U.S. Senate; all three Republican candidates for Florida Cabinet offices prevailed, as well.
Turnout in Polk County was 49.68%, according to final unofficial results posted by the Polk Supervisor of Elections Office at 9:51 p.m. Turnout in Polk County was 49.68%; indeed, 25.3% of Polk’s 463,894 eligible voters had cast ballots in either early voting or vote by mail as of Monday.
U.S. House – In a race getting national attention, Republican Laurel Lee bested Democrat Alan Cohn for Florida’s District 15 with 58.8% of the vote in a district that encompasses the western half of Lakeland and part of Hillsborough. In the other local U.S. House race, Republican incumbent Scott Franklin of Lakeland breezed to a 74.7% lead over non-party-affiliated challenger Keith R. Hayden Jr. for the multi-county District 18 seat.
Florida Senate – In the Lakeland-based 12th District, Republican Colleen Burton was elevated to the Senate after a term-limited eight years in the Florida House, leading Democrat Veysel Dokur with 63.2% of the vote. Also, Republican incumbent Ben Albritton of Wauchula defeated Democratic challenger Christopher Proia of Fort Myers in District 27, which includes south Lakeland suburbs; he tallied 70.1% of the districtwide vote.
Polk County Commission Chair Martha Santiago, a Republican, defeated Democratic challenger Markeishia L. Smith for the northeast Polk-based District 4 by a margin of 66% to 34%
Polk County Judge – In this nonpartisan race, John Flynn, who garnered the most votes in the five-way August primary, defeated Ruth Moracen Knight, capturing 62.75% of the vote.
Environmental lands: A referendum to reactivate a Polk County property tax to buy endangered, environmentally sensitive lands passed with 58.5% approval. Backers said the measure would cost an average homeowner $30 to $35 a year and enable the county government to continue protecting land such as the Circle B Bar Reserve.
County charter: A referendum to change reviews of the Polk County Charter from every eight years to every 12 years was approved with 62.3% voting yes. The proposal was promoted as a cost-saving measure.
Polk School Board
The runoff for the District 7 seat on the Polk County School Board included incumbent Lisa Miller, who received 42.4% of the vote in the Aug. 23 primary election, and challenger Jill Sessions, who received 37.5% in August. A third candidate, retired educator Del Quary tallied 20.1% in the primary.
“I am proud that Polk County showed up for local elections and local commitment across party lines,” Miller said tonight of the nonpartisan contest. “We showed the national races that it’s not about the partisan PAC money.”
LkldNow and The Ledger have reported that state national conservative political action committees were behind several anti-Miller advertisements on television and online. In addition, a text message went out to Republican voters before the primary with false claims about Miller and her husband. Another text went out Monday, as well.
Miller said tonight that the race has taught her 11-year-old daughter, Evie, to question political ads. “I tried to point out to Evie now when you see a commercial and it’s negative, you have to question why and whose money is behind it,” Miller said. “Now we just have to get back to work. The kids are waiting.”
Sessions issued this statement the morning after the election: “It was a hard fought race. It was a joy to have met many inspiring and encouraging people along the way. I am grateful to all the people who worked diligently on my campaign. I will continue to seek ways to improve the primary education system in Polk County for the sake of all students. I wish success to Lisa Miller and the other board members in their elected positions.”
Miller, 46, has spent 15-plus years advocating for the rights of special-needs children. She was endorsed by Business Voice (Lakeland Chamber), East Polk Association of Realtors, Lakeland Association of Realtors, and the Polk County Builders Association.
Sessions, 57, said if she won, she would resign from her full-time job as director of solid waste for the city of Plant City, but would keep her part-time job as an adjunct, online college professor. She was endorsed by the Republican Party of Polk County, Winter Haven 9-12 Project and The 1776 Project PAC.
Though School Board seats are nonpartisan, both major parties broke precedent this year and supported candidates. Miller is not affiliated with a political party and received no party backing.
The winner will represent a district that includes much of north Lakeland and Auburndale. School Board members set policy for a massive school district that encompasses 116,000 students, 13,000 employees and a $2.2 billion budget.
Polk’s School Board races saw an infusion of out-of-county and out-of-state money this year. Sessions and three other conservative candidates were supported with $40,000 worth of pre-primary attack ads from The American Principles Project (APP), a national pro-parents’ rights organization.
After the primary, ads attacking Miller were paid for by a Tampa-based political action committee called Educators and Parents for School Excellence.
Miller benefited from ads promoting her candidacy funded by Florida Education Association’s Advocacy Fund, an arm of a statewide teachers union.
Three other School Board races were settled in the August primary. Newcomer Rick Nolte, who was the only Polk candidate endorsed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, unseated first-term incumbent Sarah Fortney. Kay Fields held off a challenge from the right by Terry Clark for re-election to her fifth term on the board. And Justin Sharpless defeated Sarah Jones for an open seat.
U.S. House of Representatives
The matchup between Democrat Alan Cohn and Republican Laurel Lee for District 15 garnered national attention as a relatively rare race for an open seat in Congress in a district where voter registration was relatively close between both major parties. Still, Daily Kos estimated the newly drawn district would have favored Donald Trump over Joe Biden in 2020 by a margin of 51% to 47.9%.
Cohn, 59, is a former TV news anchor and investigative reporter. Lee, 48, is a former Florida secretary of state.
Both live on the Hillsborough County side of a mostly suburban and rural district that includes most of Lakeland west of Florida Avenue/U.S. 98 north and stretches west to the Veterans Expressway in Tampa.
The August party primaries were both hotly contested with both emerging on top of five-candidate fields. Lee faced several well-known politicians, including former state Sen. Kelli Stargel of Lakeland and state Rep. Jackie Toledo of Tampa.
With no major party opposition, Lakeland’s Scott Franklin sailed to easy victory for his second term in the U.S. House. In the coming Congress, he will represent District 18, which includes most of Lakeland east of Florida Avenue/U.S. 98 North and stretches south into Collier County.
Until now, Franklin — a former insurance executive and three-year Lakeland city commissioner — represented House District 15, but redistricting put him in the newly redrawn District 18.
No Democrats ran for the seat. Franklin faced opposition from Keith R. Hayden Jr. of Sebring, who is not affiliated with a political party and calls himself a Constitutional Conservative.
In the August primary, the conservative Franklin defeated four much more conservative opponents, garnering 73.1% of the vote.
“I ran because I was really concerned about how dysfunctional Congress is,” Franklin said tonight. “If I’m going to be there, I want to be effective, so I’m really excited to get the majority back.”
Franklin said he had a few bills he wants to introduce immediately, including HR 9148, which would streamline the grant process for cities or counties with a population of fewer than 50,000.
“A lot of organizations could benefit — the need is great, but a lot of them aren’t staffed with grant writers,” Franklin said.
He said he would also like to see Congress write and pass a balanced budget law. “I really am concerned about the following generations and the debt we’re piling up on them,” he said.
The race for Florida State Senate District 12 pitted Democrat Veysel Dokur, a first-time office seeker, against Republican Florida Rep. Colleen Burton. The Lakeland residents vied to represent a district that covers most of northern Polk County.
Both ran on their party’s platform, with Dokur promising to protect voting rights, women’s reproductive rights, and the environment; find solutions to the affordable housing crisis and skyrocketing insurance rates; and increase job growth and funding for public schools and teachers.
Burton said she will ensure “quality healthcare for all Floridians, educational opportunities that prepare Florida’s students to be career-ready, and control the state budget while keeping taxes low.”
Dokur, 56, is an engineer for an international company, who moved to Central Florida 21 years ago from his native Turkey. He is married and has two sons, 15 and 22.
Burton is 64 and has served in the Florida House of Representatives since 2014. She has been married since 1980 to Brad Burton. The couple moved to Lakeland in 1993 and have three children and three grandchildren. Burton holds a bachelor’s degree in public administration from California State University, Sacramento.
Dokur raised $15,000 for his campaign, including a $3,000 loan he made to his campaign. Burton aised $406,000, with the bulk of that coming before the Aug. 23 primary.
Polk County Commission
Republican incumbent Martha Santiago faced opposition from Democrat Markeishia Smith for the Polk County Commission’s District 4, which encompasses much of northeast Polk.
It was the only County Commission race on this year’s ballot. First-term Commissioner Rick Wilson of Bartow was re-elected without opposition. The five-member Board of County Commissioners serves as the legislative body setting policy for Polk County government.
Santiago, a 67-year-old educator, raked in endorsements from Sheriff Grady Judd and several business organizations: Business Voice ( Lakeland Chamber of Commerce), Lakeland Association of Realtors, East Polk Association of Realtors, Polk County Builders Association.
Smith, a 41-year-old lawyer, was endorsed by Florida Rep. Michelle Rayner-Goolsby, the Florida LGBTQ+ Democratic Caucus, and attorney Daryl Parks.
Polk County Judge
A five-way primary race for a vacant Polk County judgeship resulted in a runoff between the two top vote-getters, John Flynn and Ruth Moracen Knight. Flynn received the largest share of the primary vote, 35.8%, and Knight received 19.9%.
The general election race was largely low-key, but controversy arose a week before the primary when an image promoting Flynn’s candidacy was removed from the Republican Party of Polk County website Friday after questions were raised about whether the promotion violates a state law that no political party “shall endorse, support, or assist any candidate in a campaign for election to judicial office.”
Flynn, 48, has a private legal practice focusing on criminal cases with experience in family and civil law; he is a former prosecutor.
Knight, 54, has worked for the Public Defender’s Office for 20 years.
There was no incumbent in the race; the previous group 8 judge, Susan Barber, was elected to the circuit court without opposition and will replace Judge Donald Jacobsen, who is retiring. County judges typically hear cases involving criminal misdemeanors, traffic cases and civil cases under $30,000 (That cap rises to $50,000 in Jan. 1). The term of office is six years.
A LkldNow reporter spoke with several voters at a polling place today on east Edgewood Drive.
David Pannell, 61, voted for Crist for governor. “I think he makes sense. He speaks more to what the everyday person needs,” Pannell said. “DeSantis is too much like Trump, too radical. The country is in a bad divide. I’ve seen the country go through a dark period with civil rights. I’ve seen it heal. I’ve seen the country go back in time about 50 years. I want someone trying to bring people together.”
Pannell called the country a melting pot, including his own family. He is Black and his wife is of European heritage. Their children are biracial. He doesn’t want to see the country go back to a time when that kind of thing is illegal.
“I just don’t like the hatred — (it’s) too much.”,” Pannell said. “The KKK marched on my great-grandfather’s property in Tazwell County, Va., in the 1960s. He was a sharecropper. The very people he was plowing fields for Monday-Friday he had to stand guard at his back door Friday and Saturday night.”
Evan Bailie, 30, voted for incumbent School Board member Lisa Miller, rather than her opponent, Jill Sessions. “I read that (Sessions) is adopting DeSantis’ education agenda, which is no bueno.”
Bailie said he voted for Crist reluctantly. “It wasn’t my first choice, but he was on the ballot,” Bailie said, adding that he had forgotten to vote for another Democrat in the August primary.
“I want some healthcare revisions – universal healthcare,” Bailie said. “More environmental protections.”
Angelina Berezin, 31, called her School Board vote for Miller the evil of two lessers. “I’ve just been hearing a lot of negative things about Jill Sessions,” Berezin said. “I have to pick who’s closer to my values. It should be all of us together.”
She voted for Crist for the same reason as her friend, Evan.
Elizabeth Chalmers voted with a provisional ballot. “We just moved out of county, so we drove back here to vote,” said Chalmers, who was at the polling place with her two children ages 3 and 5. They both went into the polling place with her and got stickers.
A bumper sticker on the back of her SUV had a picture of a cross, a gun and a heart and said “Pro God, Pro Gun, Pro Life.”
She said she voted for DeSantis because of his “conservative beliefs. I think he’s done a good job.” She voted for Rubio for the same reason.
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