Lauren Book and Barbara Sharief face off in contentious election for Florida Senate

The official business is picking a Florida state senator. But the election between Lauren Book and Barbara Sharief, the most continuous contest of 2022 in Broward County, is far more consequential.

It’s consuming time and money Democrats had hoped to use elsewhere, and it could stoke racial tensions between essential Democratic Party constituencies, potentially leaving political scars when the campaign is over.

Each candidate stakes a claim as the truest champion of Democratic values. Each candidate is claiming the strongest political footprint in Broward’s new 35th Senate District, which is mostly south and west of Florida’s Turnpike.

RELATED: Barbara Sharief running for Florida Senate, setting stage for colossal primary showdown ]

Both Book and Sharief bring formidable political skills to the race. Each has served for years in elected office, and the colleagues who know them best chose them — twice each — for leadership roles.

“This will be the race to watch,” said Kathryn DePalo-Gould, a resident of the district and political scientist at Florida International University.

Democratic state Sen. Shevrin Jones termed it a “very competitive” contest. “Both are well-respected,” he said. “I wish it didn’t have to be this way.”

Half the territory Jones currently represents in South Broward is going to the new 35th District; his new district lies entirely in Miami-Dade County.

RELATED: Pleading for exemptions to 15-week abortion bill, Sen. Lauren Book reveals she was gang raped as a child ]

Open to all voters

Both candidates are Democrats, and the election takes place on primary day, Aug. 23. But because there is no Republican running in the overwhelmingly Democratic district, the voting is open to all voters — including Republicans and no party affiliation/independents.

Normally Florida primaries are closed to anyone but the members of a particular party. An open primary significantly alters the electorate.

Jones said he could envision scenarios in which either candidate is helped or hurt. “It could be good for Lauren and bad for Barbara or benefit Barbara and bad for Lauren. It could go either way,” he said.

The two Democratic candidates now need to appeal to no party affiliation/independent voters and Republicans — but not so much as to alienate Democratic voters, who are a heavy majority in the district.

“Now that it is an open primary, the dynamics have shifted in terms of campaign cash needed to appeal to a wider audience and the number of voters to reach. Both candidates will focus on independents, especially women,” DePalo Gould.

Democratic data analyst Matthew Isbell of MCI Maps reported voters in the new 35th District went 61.4% for Democratic Joe Biden in the 2020 election, and 37.9% for Trump.

With an open primary, DePalo-Gould said she expected both candidates to go after no party affiliation/independent voters, but expects “relatively few independent voters voting in August.”

She doubts they’ll court Republican voters, many of whom will show up at the polls in August. “And I see them favoring Book.”

Republican Vincent Parlatore had filed paperwork to run for the seat, which would have meant a Democratic only Book-Sharief primary. But in a late move, he switched to run for state representative. His paperwork to do so arrived just 33 minutes before the deadline for candidates to get on the ballot ― too late for another candidate to come forward for the Senate race.

Identity politics

Identity politics is a factor in the Book-Sharief contest, as Broward continues becoming more racially diverse. Though it’s a politically sensitive subject, at least some voters are inclined to cast ballots for individuals with whom they feel a cultural and racial connection.

Book is white and Jewish.

Sharief is black and Muslim.

Black and Jewish voters are the most loyal constituencies that make up the Democratic Party coalition, and both are crucial to winning.

Sharief has been outspoken in her assessment of the kind of elected official who should represent the new 35th District. Since a majority of its residents are from minority groups (Census data show the district is 46% Hispanic, 26% white and 21% Black, Isbell reported), Sharief said the district should have a state senator from an historically underrepresented minority group.

But the political implications are complex.

A higher proportion of white people and a lower share of Hispanic people are eligible to vote and turn out for elections than the overall population. One reason: A relatively large share of Hispanic residents aren’t yet old enough to vote, or have emigrated from other countries and aren’t yet citizens, and so are unable to vote. Using data from the University and Florida and Wichita State University, a Tampa Bay Times database estimated the electorate is 36% Hispanic, 36% white, and 18% Black.

Steve Geller, a Broward County commissioner and former Florida Senate Democratic leader who currently or has previously represented about half the territory of new Senate District 35, said it’s a mistake to assume that voters in a given demographic group are monolithic.

“We overly simplify if we fail to recognize that there are a lot of sub communities,” Geller said.

Hispanic voters have ties to many different countries and many different political leanings, he said, and African American and Caribbean American voters often aren’t in sync politically.

Jones, who is Black, said some voters would vote based on race. “That’s just inevitable. It’s just going to happen,” he said. “Black voters are more prone to vote for Black candidates. White voters will in the end go either way [and] so do Hispanics.”

Jones said he thinks the candidates’ messaging and strategy, and history representing parts of the district, are more significant factors. He said it is essential for the candidates to have people on the ground, knocking on doors. “Personal touch” will determine the winner, he said.

DePalo-Gould said the direct approach — “Sharief has laid it down and she’s gone there and basically said she should be the one representing the minority communities in this state Senate seat” — is risky. “You run the risk of alienating others when you really pronounce which group you are supporting, perhaps over others.”

Political achievers

Both candidates’ resumes are filled with political achievements.

Book’s first exposure to politics came as a girl, via her father, Ron Book, one of the state’s most influential lobbyists.

She’s served in the Florida Senate since 2016, won a second term in 2018, and is eligible to serve a final two-years in office before term limits kick in, preventing her from running again in 2024.

In 2021, Book’s colleagues chose her to serve as the Democratic Party leader when they ousted state Sen. Gary Farmer, also from Broward, from the role. They also chose her as Democratic leader for the two years following the November election – assuming she wins re-election.

However, Book has never had to campaign for herself in a situation in which the outcome was at stake. No one came forward to run against her in either 2016 or 2018, so she’s been elected to the Florida Senate without having her name on the ballot.

Book has “never really had to compete for it before,” said Grace Carrington, Broward’s Democratic state committeewoman, who added that it’s difficult to assess how much that matters.

Book clearly understands the value of personal political contact — including in Sharief’s home territory. On Saturday, she campaigned door-to-door in Miramar and attended the Taste of the Caribbean Islands festival. On Monday, she was back, speaking to the Miramar Democratic Club. (Sharief was at the Weston Democratic Club Monday evening.) At the Dolphin Democrats LGBTQ political club’s monthly meeting in June, Book stayed long after the evening’s other speakers had left, talking to anyone who wanted to have a word.

Sharief was elected to the Broward County Commission in 2012 and re-elected in 2014 in contested races. In 2018, no opponent came forward and she won a third term without appearing on the ballot. She was elected to the Miramar City Commission in 2009.

Her County Commission colleagues twice chose her to serve one-year terms as Broward County major. The second time, they bypassed other commissioners who hadn’t had their own turn in the mayor’s chair.

As a county commissioner, she also served as president of the Florida Association of Counties.

And last November, her name was on the ballot in some of the 35th District’s territory, and her commercials were on the air. Sharief was an unsuccessful candidate in a special Democratic congressional primary, finishing third in the 11-candidate field seeking the nomination to succeed the late Congressman Alcee Hastings.

Early tragedies

Both Book and Sharief had their childhoods upended by horrible crimes.

At age 11, the woman who was the Book family’s live-in nanny — after gaining her trust for almost a year — began years of physical, sexual and emotional abuse. (The abuser is now in prison.)

That led to her work before she ran for elected office. Book founded the Lauren’s Kids child abuse prevention program.

In March, Book, now 37, publicly revealed more about her background. Pleading with colleagues to add an exemption for victims of rape, incest and human trafficking to Florida’s strict new limits on abortion that go into effect July 1, she revealed publicly for the first timethat she was raped by a group of men when she was a young teen. She was brought to the scene of the crimes by the nanny.

Sharief, 50, grew up in Miami, the daughter of a self-employed clothing salesman and a retired schoolteacher. One day when Sharief’s father was selling clothing with her then-19-year-old sister, he was shot and killed by a 15-year-old robber.

Her father was 47 at the time. Her mother was 43.

Sharief, then 14 and one of eight children left fatherless, has said she got a job to help her mother pay the bills.

Sharief became a nurse practitioner, earned a doctorate in nursing practice, and is founder and CEO South Florida Pediatric Homecare.

District 35

The 35th, like all state Senate districts, has new boundaries that go into effect for the 2022 elections to reflect population changes uncovered in the 2022 Census.

The Republicans, who control the Legislature and were in charge of drafting the new maps, put much of the territory Book had been representing since 2016 in the new 35th District — and drew the boundaries so her Plantation home was about four blocks inside the new District 32, represented by new state Sen. Rosalind Osgood, D-Fort Lauderdale.

Book has since moved to a Davie home in District 35.

During her 10 years on the County Commission, Sharief, who lives in Miramar, also represented a significant part of the territory that’s in the state Senate district.

“Both women have their areas where they come from and have their following,” Carrington said.

The new 35th District is the southwest quarter of the county, mostly south of Interstate 595 and west of Florida’s Turnpike. It also includes territory around the hockey arena in Sunrise formerly known as the BB&T Center and the Sawgrass Mills shopping mall, along with vast unpopulated territory in the Everglades.

The district includes all or parts of Cooper City, Davie, Hollywood, Miramar, Pembroke Pines, Sunrise and Southwest Ranches and Weston.

Book’s clout

Democratic Party elected officials and interest groups aligned with the party are overwhelmingly supporting Book.

Many Democrats, like Jones and Geller, said they’re unhappy about the Sharief candidacy because it means Book has to devote her energy to campaigning in Broward County and raising money to spend on her own campaign. They would have preferred she wait two years and run for the seat when Book couldn’t run again because of term limits, though an open seat usually attracts many candidates.

“As Democrats, I just think we have to be more strategic,” Jones said. “I just wish we weren’t in this predicament, because there are a lot of opportunities out there for us to pick up seats in purple districts that Lauren should be focusing on but she can’t because she has a race.”

The primary, Geller said, means Book “is being distracted from her job to raise money and travel the state raising money and campaigning on behalf of the Senate Democratic candidates.”

Given her position in the party, state committeewoman Carrington isn’t endorsing a candidate, but said that “anybody who wants to vie for a seat should run.”

Book’s endorsers include almost all the Democratic state senators; the LGBTQ group Equality Florida; abortion-rights organizations Ruth’s List and Planned Parenthood PAC; the environmental organization Sierra Club; the Service Employees International Union; and multiple public sector unions: American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Florida Professional Firefighters, Broward Teachers Union, Broward County Police Benevolent Association and the Fraternal Order of Police district that includes Broward.

RELATED: Broward’s Ron Book, one of Florida’s most influential lobbyists and father of state senator, has throat cancer ]

The most prominent person to express support for Sharief is U.S. Rep. Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, who won the special congressional primary last year. The congresswoman invited her to her campaign kickoff event in May, Sharief showed up, and the two said they were supporting each other in their 2022 primary bids. So far, there has been no official endorsement.

By late June, Sharief’s campaign Twitter had publicized only two endorsements, from an organization Latino Vote and from retired Circuit Court Judge Ilona Holmes.

Hot from Day 1

From the moment she entered the race, Sharief has used sharp language and strong criticism of Book to sow doubts about the senator.

“Too many politicians are concerned with how to benefit themselves and lobbyists who give them money. They have no idea who you are, what you think or what you want because they only care about passing their own agendas by any means necessary,” Sharief said in her announcement video. “We need true public servants who will fight for the people they serve instead of selling out.”

RELATED: Election-year redistricting upends careers and turns allies into enemies ]

Book has taken a softer approach, introducing herself to voters.

One of her ads, “Fighter,” starts with Book explaining to her 5-year-old twins why she travels to Tallahassee, then turns to the camera: “Hi. I’m Lauren Book, a mom who fights for Broward families in the Legislature so our kids can have better schools and families can afford access to health care. And as a survivor of sexual assault, keeping kids safe is my life’s mission.”

Book’s advertising shows she takes the potential threat from Sharief seriously. Book began ads on broadcast TV in early May in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale market. It’s unusual to start so far in advance of the primary. Even more than the early timing, broadcast television in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale market is extraordinarily expensive— and the territory is so large that the vast majority of people who see the ads are able to vote in the district.

DePalo-Gould said that also was a message to Sharief: “We’ve got the money. Come get us.”