Hurricane Irma offers political fuel to candidates in Senate District 40 race

The impacts and recovery efforts that followed Hurricane Irma have presented fresh fodder for political debate between the two main candidates who are seeking voters’ support in a bitter battle for an open state Senate seat in Miami-Dade County that will be decided next week.

On WPLG Local 10 News’ “This Week in South Florida” on Sunday, Republican state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz and Democrat Annette Taddeo sparred about the “lessons learned” from the storm.

They also used the 10-minute televised debate to trade attacks over which of them caters more to special interest groups and industries that came to the forefront during and after the hurricane, such as utilities and nursing home care.

“What we have learned is that industry has a great impact at the [Public Service Commission], at the Legislature. They have killed certain legislation so it could have prevented the lives that we lost at the nursing home,” Taddeo said on the Sunday morning show, referencing the eight elderly people who died last week in a Broward County facility that lacked air conditioning after the hurricane.

The general election for the Senate District 40 seat in southwest Miami-Dade will be decided Sept. 26.

Whether it was the elder care industry or utilities, like Florida Power & Light, Taddeo said: “We need to make sure we have representatives that represent us — not the special interests. And that’s not what we have right now; we have had this problem in Florida for decades.”

Diaz — who’s served in the Florida House for seven years — countered that “it’s unfortunate that my opponent would try to paint me off as someone who’s beholden to special interests.”

“The only special interest that matters to me is the people of my community. Nobody’s worked harder during and after this storm than me,” Diaz said, before listing off how many thousands of hot meals and bottles of water he said he’d coordinated for storm victims. (Taddeo noted later that she, too, had volunteered to help in recovery efforts.)

RELATED: “Irma no obstacle to election. Early voting started Saturday for two Miami-Dade races.”

Diaz took a dig at Taddeo by noting that during her past — and unsuccessful — bids for lieutenant governor, county commission and Congress, “she raised millions of dollars from the same special interests she’s accusing me of having accepted dollars from. The only difference is that I’ve actually won my election and been able to serve the community.”

Meanwhile, the candidates found some areas of agreement on ways the state could improve policies and regulations post-Irma.

Both Diaz and Taddeo said they would support legislation that’s already been proposed to ensure nursing homes and assisted-living facilities have generators.

Each also said they want to see FPL to bury its power lines so Floridians aren’t plagued by lengthy outages after hurricanes. (As of noon Monday — nearly a week after Irma left Florida — 391,500 customers statewide were still without power, state officials reported.)

RELATED: “How did your service providers do after the storm? Let us know”

“I went through Andrew 25 years ago. I also went through Wilma [and] went for two weeks without power,” Taddeo said. “All these years, we haven’t learned. We’re not ready. Imagine if the eye had come.”

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“We need to have funds ready to bury lines in important parts of the county, where the transmitters are to make sure we don’t have power loss for as long as we have,” Diaz agreed. “It’s inexcusable. People are working very hard but the fact that we still have over 100,000 people in our community that are without power — we need to do better.”

Diaz also proposed stiffer penalties for people who loot during and after storms. “We’ve seen businesses and individual homes get hurt by people that are committing crimes during these horrible times and we need to increase those penalties,” he said.

The general election for the Senate District 40 seat in southwest Miami-Dade will be decided Sept. 26. Voting early and by mail is already underway.

Joining Taddeo and Diaz on the ballot is Christian “He-Man” Schlaerth, who is not affiliated with a political party.

Gov. Rick Scott last week rejected a request by the state Democratic Party to postpone the District 40 race in light of Irma.