By Joel Engelhardt
The party activist who said she instigated the local Republican Party’s censure of state Rep. Mike Caruso faces him for the Republican nomination for state House in the newly drawn District 87.
A Highland Beach commissioner who has put $200,000 into her own campaign goes against a Russian-born adoptee who calls herself an “America-first patriot” for the Republican nomination in Boca Raton-area District 91.
And two newcomers, one well-ensconced in the local Republican Party, face off in state Senate District 26, with the winner facing Democratic incumbent Lori Berman in the Nov. 8 general election.
Those are the state House and Senate primary battles that appear on the Aug. 23 ballot for voters who live on the South County barrier islands. Several unchallenged candidates will move directly to the general election without a primary. Here’s a breakdown of the six candidates in the three contested races:
House District 87: Mike Caruso vs. Jane Justice
Caruso, 63, a Delray Beach resident, won his first state House seat in 2018 when he defeated Democrat Jim Bonfiglio by 32 votes out of nearly 80,000 cast. He beat Bonfiglio again in 2020, but this time by 11,000 votes.
Then came redistricting, and the state split the South County barrier islands that he used to serve into three House districts. He’s running in Republican-leaning District 87, which starts at the Boynton Inlet and covers Hypoluxo, Lantana, Manalapan and South Palm Beach, as well as large swaths of West Palm Beach and Palm Beach Gardens, before ending at Marcinski Road in Jupiter.
Caruso’s Delray Beach oceanfront condo, listed on his 2021 financial disclosure form as a $3.3 million asset, is no longer in the district, meaning he’ll have to establish residency to the north if he wins. In all, Caruso reported a net worth of $4.1 million.
In the past few months, Caruso faced an uprising from within the Republican Party of Palm Beach County. The party executive committee voted to censure him and block him from running again as a Republican after he endorsed a Democrat, Katherine Waldron, in her four-way primary for the House District 93 seat covering Wellington.
He said he made the endorsement because he and Waldron, a Port of Palm Beach commissioner, worked well together on Bahamas hurricane relief and he considered her a friend.
But he said he casts party line votes 99% of the time and retained the support of the state Republican Party, which not only did not oust him but has given him $20,650 in staffing and polling assistance since June 21, according to Caruso campaign reports.
In total, Caruso has raised $146,000 as of July 15 and spent $61,000.
His opponent, Jane Justice, said she led the campaign to censure Caruso when she found out he had endorsed Waldron, whom she called “a radical Democrat.”
“I question why Caruso is in our party,” Justice said.
Justice, 66, says she’s a grass-roots activist, not a politician. Her campaign website says she will fight for election integrity, school choice, parents’ rights and against mask and vaccine mandates and inappropriate sexual material in children’s schoolbooks.
“I’m a ‘We the people’ candidate,” she said. “People know who I am. When our constitutional rights are being infringed on, I’m going to stand up.”
She spoke recently before the Palm Beach County Commission on election integrity, challenging the accuracy of machines that help duplicate damaged ballots so they can be fed through counting machines.
She said she wants to severely limit voting by mail because it has ushered in “a lot of fraud” and ballots should be counted by hand, not by a tabulating machine that could be connected to the internet.
Like Caruso, she supports the recently enacted 15-week ban on abortion in Florida. While he wouldn’t take a position on an outright ban, which may be proposed in the next legislative session now that the Supreme Court has removed the federal right to abortion, Justice said she believed there needs to be some exceptions that would have to be decided by a doctor and patient.
She has raised $22,000 through July 15, about half in loans from herself, and spent nearly $10,000. She lists her 2021 net worth as $410,000, including her Greenacres condo, which is not in the district.
The primary winner will face Democrat Sienna Osta in the general election.
House District 91: Christina DuCasse vs. Peggy Gossett-Seidman
The Delray Beach woman competing with Highland Beach Commissioner Peggy Gossett-Seidman portrays herself as an “America-first patriot.”
“I love America and I love the Constitution,” Christina DuCasse says on her campaign website. “I grew up in Boca Raton and I have spent the last 20 years invested in this city.”
DuCasse, 29, a first-time candidate for office, does not mention that she was born in Russia, the birthplace listed on her September 2017 marriage license to Boca Raton firefighter Dustin DuCasse.
Responding to a call about her birthplace, DuCasse said she had been born in Russia, adopted at the age of 7, raised in South Florida and is an American citizen. She declined to discuss her adoption further or to discuss the issues facing voters in District 91, but she agreed that her personal story made her more conscious of the importance of liberty.
“I hope to be a voice to stand for freedom,” she said.
On her website, she stakes out positions in line with Gov. Ron DeSantis on border security, mask and vaccine mandates and critical race theory.
On elections, she supports ending early voting, limiting mail-in ballots to people in the military and “those who absolutely need it” and “paper ballots only — no machines!” It is not clear if she would support hand-counting of ballots.
On abortion, she writes, she will “fight for the rights of all people, including the unborn.”
Through July 15, she raised $12,300 and spent $7,200. She listed her net worth as $249,761, including the $430,000 value for her townhome outside the district in Delray. She reported her primary income in 2021 of $22,000 came from cleaning houses.
For Gossett-Seidman, the triumph of getting three bills passed this year by the state Senate and House for projects in Highland Beach, where she has served as a commissioner since 2018, met the harsh reality of Gov. DeSantis’ veto pen.
She understood his veto of the two biggest items, requests for $700,000 toward drainage improvements along State Road A1A and $400,000 for a new fire station, because the money is available in a different state program, one she and the bill sponsor, Caruso, are pursuing.
Gossett-Seidman, 69, born in Michigan, has lived in Highland Beach since 1991. She first won her Highland Beach commission seat in a four-candidate race in 2018 and was re-elected to a three-year term without opposition in 2021.
She has raised $275,000 through July 15, including $25,000 from the Florida House Republican Campaign Committee and $200,000 as a personal loan. She has spent $52,700.
She listed her 2021 net worth at $22.2 million, including her Intracoastal-facing $4 million home. But the bulk of her fortune, $17.2 million, is in Apple stock, for which she credited her husband, a doctor, who bought it in the 1990s when the stock was selling for less than $1.
Despite the money, the former sportswriter said she drove her 2005 Suburban until it conked out on a recent trip to Tallahassee, wears 2-year-old tennis shoes and clips coupons.
“What can I say? I’m very Midwest that way,” she said.
She supports the state’s 15-week abortion ban but said she doesn’t expect the Legislature to ban abortion entirely. “I’m flexible. I will look at all the facts.”
She harbors some concerns about election integrity but said it really falls on the election supervisors in the state’s 67 counties.
She is not a supporter of mask mandates, saying “in the beginning it seemed like a great idea but after a while the science wasn’t there to wear a mask.”
She agrees with removing some books from classrooms, describing a kindergarten book citing the terms KKK and negro. “I don’t know why you need to teach a 5-year-old that. It makes no sense,” she said.
DuCasse and Gossett-Seidman face off for the seat formerly held by Emily Slosberg-King, who is not seeking re-election. The district includes all of Boca Raton, most of Highland Beach and much of west Boca.
The winner faces Democrat Andy Thomson, a Boca Raton City Council member.
Senate District 26: Steve Byers vs. Bill Wheelen
Since 2015, Bill Wheelen has been volunteering with the local Republican Party. Earlier this year, he said he received the group’s Jean Pipes Award for volunteer service at a Mar-a-Lago dinner headlined by Donald Trump and DeSantis.
While he contemplated a run for the congressional seat held by Lois Frankel, he saw the crowded field of Republican challengers and said he opted for the state Senate seat now held by Democrat Lori Berman.
At the same time, Steve Byers decided to run, creating a two-way race for the nomination.
While Wheelen answered questions and discussed issues with The Coastal Star, Byers, who appears on shared campaign postcards with DuCasse, did not respond to repeated phone calls.
Both men live in the sprawling district, which extends along the beach from Boca Raton’s Red Reef Park to the Boynton Inlet and stretches west to Belle Glade. Wheelen, 68, lives in Wellington; Byers, who will turn 54 in August, lives off of Hagen Ranch and Lake Ida roads west of Delray.
While Berman has raised $127,000 without a primary opponent, Wheelen has nearly $11,000, including $7,000 in loans from himself, and Byers has $5,000, including $4,800 he lent his campaign.
Wheelen listed his net worth at $765,000, including $720,000 for the value of his home.
Byers listed his net worth at $2.6 million, including a $210,000 Porsche 930, three properties in the Pittsburgh area and $1.3 million for his Wellington home.
On the abortion issue, Wheelen, a practicing Catholic, admits to being conflicted.
“I follow church teaching. However, I’m also more pragmatic than that. It’s really not my place to tell you what you should do. If science says 15 weeks, that’s where we stop,” he said.
He has concerns about election integrity, particularly fraud through vote-by-mail ballot harvesting, and opposes mask mandates.
His No. 1 priority is school safety, which he says requires hardening schools and spending whatever it takes.
“Gun control has nothing to do with it,” he said. “The more gun control we have, the less law-abiding citizens have them.”
He writes on his website about how his father barely had enough money to pay rent and wouldn’t eat until the children did. He took a job as a janitor on Wall Street and became a trader, putting two children through college.
Byers calls himself a “serial entrepreneur” on his website. He parlayed success in Amway sales into a consulting business that he said worked on projects for IBM and the CIA. Among businesses he started since then is one as a beekeeper.
“I’ve got thick skin,” he writes on his website. “I have taken the stings of the bees to put honey on your table. I will take the stings of politics to put honesty in your government.”
You can find a story online with House maps at https://thecoastalstar.com/profiles/blogs/along-the-coast-new-map-carves-barrier-island-into-three-district. A Senate story is at https://thecoastalstar.com/profiles/blogs/along-the-coast-senate-seats-changing-as-well.
For a sample ballot go to: www.pbcelections.org