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.”