Benny Valentin of Poinciana filed last February to run next November for the Florida Senate District 22 seat being vacated by the term-limited Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, and hasn’t been heard from since.

But that’s going to change come spring, said Valentin, confirming he is, indeed, a 2022 Republican candidate for the senate district, which spans parts of Polk and Lake counties but could be tweaked as state lawmakers adopt new state and congressional district maps.

“We are starting to gear it up now. We are starting to have meetings,” he said last week. 

Valentin’s campaign has no money and an alpine climb before it: He faces Rep. Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland, who is term-limited in the House and the overwhelming favorite to move onto the Senate.

“That’s always going to be the case when you are running against somebody in office. I was told when you win, you will always be backed and supported by the establishment,” he said. “Just because somebody is there, we cannot fall into that fear, depending on career politicians” to do the people’s bidding.

Burton “has done a great job,” he continued. “I have nothing negative to say about her but she’s done her eight years and we should thank her. We need that new blood, new faces and new people. It’s about opportunity and should not be about the same faces all the time.”

Burton began her eighth, and last, year in the state House last Tuesday when the 60-day 2022 legislative session kicked off in Tallahassee. She will have plenty of opportunity during the session to polish off her lawmaking resume before campaigning begins in earnest this spring. 

Burton chairs the House Health & Human Services Committee, sits on the House Appropriations Committee and has, thus far, filed 12 bills, including House Bill 1097, the Citrus Recovery Act, which proposes a near-total revamp of the Florida Citrus Commission, and 10 “project bills” — essentially appropriations requests — totaling more than $47 million for local capital improvements and programs.

Three of Burton’s project appropriations address the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce’s top priorities in earmarking about $35 million for Polk State College to expand its critical health sciences programs ($5 million), renovate a campus building ($16.7 million) and for its Northeast Ridge Phase I project ($13.8 million).

Burton has garnered endorsements from Stargel, Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and future Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, among other Republican state House leaders.

As of Jan. 12, the Florida Division of Elections reports Burton had $294,870 in campaign contributions with more than $72,000 accumulated since October. Not one contribution is for more than $1,000 but more than 260 donors have contributed $1,000 each to her campaign.

Valentin, 47, has been filing blank DOE campaign statements since February and shows no contributions or expenditures.

No matter, he said. He’s in it to win it.

“We need to be consistently refreshing the system so we don’t always get stuck with career politicians,” Valentin said. “We have a lot of people with passion with the heart to help others but we have so many people with backing, with influence” that newcomers are intimidated from even trying.

Valentin was born in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico, and grew up in  Huntington, N.Y. He has lived in Poinciana since 2004. He says he has a Ph.D in theology and clinical psychology and spent two decades as a corporate operations director before working as a subcontracted university counselor.

In 2009, Valentin and his wife, Enny, opened The Logos Christian University & Vocational Institute of Technology, a private Christian university in Kissimmee that prepares future pastors and ministers “to lead the community and churches they serve.”

Like his grandfather, father and uncle, Valentin has been a minister for more than 30 years and says he has served as a former president of the Alliance of Clergy, Ministers and Christian Organizations of Florida and as an Osceola County Sheriff’s Office chaplain. 

“I have a lot of experience in community leadership, nonprofits, which has given me valuable tools to make contributions to society and in helping the community move forward,” he said.

Valentin was a 2016 Democratic candidate for Florida House District 42, which spans the Polk/Osceola county line and includes Lake Wales and Frostproof in southeast Polk County. Most of the district’s 180,000 voters are in Osceola County.

Valentin ran unopposed in the 2016 HD 42 Democratic primary and garnered 34,527 of 77,223 votes cast (44.7%) in an election won by Rep. Mike La Rosa, R-St. Cloud. It was an unexpected strong showing by a newcomer against a heavily favored incumbent.

In 2020, with La Rosa term-limited, Valentin again ran for the HD 42 seat, but this time as a Republican. He finished last in a four-candidate race won by former Osceola County Commissioner Fred Hawkins Jr., who defeated Democrat Barbara Cady of Lake Wales by less than 1,200 votes of nearly 100,000 cast in the general election.

Valentin’s top three priorities in 2020 were home owners association reform, investment in education and encouraging small business growth. Those remain priorities, he said, but his experience being “contracted by schools to do counseling” since COVID-19 emerged “has definitely affected” his views in terms of “investing in education and businesses to help the economy.”

Valentin said he’ll “be making announcements soon” in terms of policy proposals for the campaign trail but noted the inability to resolve the state’s property insurance crisis is an example of why the Legislature needs new blood.

“When we have new people step in, they aren’t influenced by what has been going on for years. They get involved in politics and PACs but when you get new people in there, you look at things different,” he said. “With property insurance, there has to be a coming together because of the hurricanes and storms. We need to sit down and look at what is influencing these high rates.”

Burton will garner the big donors, get the establishment GOP endorsements and make some news this winter as an active, successful legislator. Her lone challenger — thus far; candidates have until June to file — says he won’t have to say much until spring … other than change is needed.

“We have no fear of competition. If we had that fear, nothing would be accomplished. I want to serve,” Valentin said. “All I can say, it doesn’t matter what the odds are, everybody should have the opportunity to run. You never know. Stranger things have happened.”

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