The two candidates for the open Senate seat for Nassau and much of Duval County politely laid out differing big picture visions for improving the economy, education and health care but offered very few specifics in what may be their only joint appearance before the election.
Former Republican state Rep. Aaron Bean, and Democrat Nancy Soderberg, a University of North Florida professor who was a national security official in the Clinton Administration, however, both agreed on the main priorities for the Legislature during their appearance Friday at the First Coast Tiger Bay Club.
Improving the economy, and making sure the Jacksonville area, in particular, sees some of that improvement, and fixing the education system were cited by both as being of primary importance.
Soderberg also said a priority for her is protecting Medicaid from cuts that she argued were a legacy of Bean's time in the House. Bean during his final four years was the House's chief health-care budget writer. He oversaw what Soderberg characterized as cuts to the state's health care safety net as growth in the cost of the program outpaced incoming tax revenue.
Bean countered that cuts in growth aren't really cuts, but he more generally argued that finding ways to stem the growth of Medicaid remains a major issue, particularly if the program's rolls are increased eventually when the federal health care overhaul fully takes effect.
But mostly, the short forum before members of the political club dealt with few specifics, with Soderberg unapologetic about that – saying she is running to change the whole tenor of the debate in Tallahassee.
"I don't want to have a debate about how you cut this, how you cut that," Soderberg said. "What's the vision? … I go to work every day at the University of Florida and want to do better for those kids."
While Soderberg, a longtime Democratic campaign activist, blamed Republicans in charge in Tallahassee for "business as usual," she took a bipartisan tone, saying she was interested in "putting the people first, and the party second, putting the public interest above the narrow special interests."
Bean also talked little in the way of specifics, though in one exception he said he wants to push for a new vocational diploma for school kids who don't have plans to go to college, allowing them to graduate and enter the workforce without having to take some of the more college-oriented higher level courses.
The debate was cordial, and both candidates mentioned some areas in which they agree. For Bean the tone was a sharp contrast from what was widely considered one of the most bruising primaries in the state when he battled Rep. Mike Weinstein. Groups on both sides hit the candidates hard, particularly in TV ads. Bean won the primary easily, though.
For Soderberg, part of the challenge is introducing herself to voters in an area where Bean may be better known – although he too may face name recognition problems in a Duval County-based district. While he works in Jacksonville, he lives in Nassau County and during his time in the House represented an area that didn't include many of the Senate district's Duval voters.
Part of that effort to bring more attention to the race should include additional joint-appearance forums or debates, Soderberg said, challenging Bean to do more of the events. The two candidates met each other personally for the first time Friday, exchanging brief remarks before the program.
Soderberg, however, has some national backing that may help her. A political committee tied to Soderberg has gotten $10,000 from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and $1,000 from former Vice President Al Gore. In addition to serving on the National Security Council, Soderberg was one of Clinton's top representatives at the United Nations.