A Senate slugfest in South Broward

DAVIE — These two words have never appeared once on a ballot in Broward County: “Lauren Book.”

She rose to prominence in politics as state Senate Democratic leader without ever having faced the voters. No one ran against her, so she was elected in 2016 and re-elected in 2018 without having to work the crowds at early voting sites under a 90-degree sun or to sweat out the results on election night.

Success came pretty easily. It didn’t hurt that as a first-time candidate, the daughter of prominent lobbyist Ron Book raised more than half-a-million dollars. Two years later she won unopposed again, this time to a four-year term.

But the free rides are over.

Now, as Book launches her third Senate race, she faces serious opposition from Barbara Sharief, whose name has been in front of voters repeatedly. The former three-term county commissioner from Miramar also served on that city’s commission.

Sharief, 50, is the first Black woman to serve as mayor of Broward County, and she finished third in the crowded Democratic field for Congress in last fall’s special election to replace the late Alcee Hastings.

Sharief categorically rejects the notion that she’s running against Book, and notes that she has been a Miramar resident for more than two decades.

“It was an open seat,” Sharief said. “My goal was to represent the people I’ve always represented.”

The battleground is the newly created Senate District 35, which was drawn by Republicans but supported by senators in both parties.

The district is dominated by Pembroke Pines and Miramar and includes all or part of Cooper City, Davie, Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood, Southwest Ranches, Sunrise and Weston. It’s a surprisingly compact chunk of Broward generally south of I-595 and west of the Turnpike, and it looks a lot like the old district Democrat Howard Forman represented in the 1990s.

Sharief describes the district’s shape as “a big Lego piece.”

It’s also a minority access district where more than half of likely Democratic primary voters are Black (35%) or Hispanic (21%).

Redistricting resulted in Book’s old district being chopped into pieces, with the areas north of I-595 moved to a new minority district that’s now represented by Sen. Rosalind Osgood, D-Fort Lauderdale. When Book’s home city of Plantation was removed, she had to move, so she and her family have found a house in Davie.

“I see this as an opportunity to represent and earn the trust and votes of some new voters,” Book said after giving a post-session report on Thursday night to the Davie-Cooper City Democratic Club. “I’m excited to have the opportunity to get to know some of these new voters.”

Sharief shook her head at how redistricting forces incumbents to scramble and find new places to live to keep their political careers alive. “You’re not supposed to have to move,” Sharief said.

Book, on the other hand, said she has never viewed her advocacy as only for the residents inside the four corners of her district. “I really don’t see some of the issues I fight for as (having) borders,” Book said. “There are no borders when you’re here and you’re part of a larger community and state.”

With Democrats’ numbers so precarious in Tallahassee these days, it’s unusual to see an incumbent targeted from within the party, and rarer still when it’s the caucus leader. It’s viewed in some quarters as another sign of Democrats in disarray, but Sharief insists: “This is democracy.”

Considering the major racial and demographic changes sweeping across South Broward, isn’t it time voters elected the candidate of their choice? Or will they vote for someone moving into the district who has six years of experience?

Sharief is poring over Book’s votes, such as her support for the Republicans’ original pro-Big Sugar bill to redirect water flows from Lake Okeechobee to South Florida. She voted for that bill (SB 2508) in the Appropriations Committee and on the floor, over the vehement opposition of boaters, sportsmen, environmentalists and local officials.

“She rolled over on that,” Sharief said.

Book, 37, is expected to have a massive fund-raising advantage. Her member-controlled political committee, Leadership for Florida, which can legally accept unlimited contributions, reports about $2.4 million in the bank.

Book said she will not use any of the Senate Democrats’ money in her race, because that’s money donated to help Democrats gain ground by beating Republicans in November.

Sharief, a home health care executive, poured $1 million of her own money into her congressional campaign, and says she’s prepared to do so again.

This won’t be a very long campaign. It’s mid-April, and people will be receiving their vote-by-mail ballots by late July. The primary is Aug. 23.

Sharief knows she has to give people a reason to vote.

“People are hurting,” she said. “They need some reason to come to the polls. I hope I’m it.”