Notes from the Republican Executive Committee candidate forum

Candidate, Charlie Stone speaks during the forum. [Jennifer Hunt/Ocala Gazette]

Home » Politics
Posted February 22, 2023 | By Jennifer Hunt Murty

Marion County’s Republican Executive Committee on Feb. 20 hosted a packed-house forum featuring all five Republican candidates for the special election to fill the vacant Florida House District 24 seat.

Randy Osborne, state committeeman for Marion County Republicans, moderated the session, held in the assembly room at the Ocala Golf Club. The March 7 special election is to fill the seat vacated in December when State Rep. Joe Harding resigned after being indicted on federal fraud charges related to receiving small business loans using COVID-19 relief funds for two defunct companies.

Osborne called on each of the candidates–Justin Albright, Ryan Chamberlin, Jose Juarez, Dr. Stephen Pyles and Charlie Stone—to give opening and closing statements and asked each of the candidates two questions.

Pyles started things off by telling the audience the state needed another doctor in the House so that citizens could have the benefit of his medical expertise when considering certain issues.

Albright said “liberals are running our schools” and he intends to turn that around and expand parental rights.

Chamberlin spoke about having a successful career that earned him millions of dollars, adding he was proud to have home schooled his three “non-woke” adult sons. Chamberlin said he supports the “anti-woke” movement against transgender sports, exclaiming, “drag queen story hour has got to go!”

Juarez said no other candidate’s family in this race knew firsthand what it was like to lose their constitutional rights as his family did when they fled Cuba after communist leader Fidel Castro assumed power. “First, they took Cubans’ guns, then they took their rights,’’ he said. “You’ve got thousands of Cubans with no way to revolt.” Juarez said he’d fight to prevent that in Florida.

Stone, a former state representative, said that due to his long history of serving in an elected capacity, he’d be the best person to hit the ground running in Tallahassee.

Osborne asked the candidates how they would improve upon the state’s efforts to secure election integrity.

Juarez responded that he would use the manner in which elections are conducted in Marion County as a model for the rest of Florida.

Chamberlin said he would offer the movie “2000 Mules free for all to watch and look for ways to tighten up mail-in ballot security.

Albright said the subject is larger than any candidate’s efforts and requires “all hands on deck” lending their engagement, whether as a candidate or a voter.

Stone said election integrity is the most critical subject we face in our country besides the Second Amendment. He offered to sponsor a bill where all mail-in ballots had serial numbers that were recorded when they were sent and received.

Pyles suggested both parties should approve voting machines. He also suggested increased screening of poll workers. He emphasized the need for voters to produce ID’s when they vote, although that requirement already is in place in Florida.

Osborne asked the candidates about some of the claims made in their campaign mailers.

He asked Albright to comment on a mailer that attacked his finances. Albright declared the messaging untrue and denounced negative PAC mailers as being counterproductive with voters. “If your campaign has to resort to sending out negative mailers or PAC’s that send out negative mailers on your behalf, you have no business in Tallahassee representing the good people of Marion County,” he said.

Chamberlin was asked about his claim to want to exempt the elderly from property taxes given the fact that the majority of Marion County’s property would thus be excused from taxes and the burden would then fall on everyone else. Chamberlin explained he felt good budgeting could be implemented locally to pass savings on to the elderly.

Juarez was asked about his position on mask and vaccine mandates, to which he replied those should be left to the business operator or the individual patient.

Pyles was asked about allegations lodged during the campaign that he ran “a pill mill.”  He dismissed the allegation and described his approach to pain management as “very strict, very stringent, and low dose.”

Stone was asked to explain whether his returning the House after terming out violated the spirit of term limits. Stone said Florida law sets term limits but those term limits do not prevent a candidate from running again.  It happens all the time, he said.

Albright was asked about whether he was leaning too heavily on his family’s name to run his campaign given the fact that his half-brother, Tax Collector George Albright, had endorsed another candidate in ther race. Albright asked anyone in the room who has not experienced family squabbles to raise their hand. He also pointed out that other family members, including his mother, who was in attendance, are supporting his election.

Chamberlin was asked about the high number of contributions his campaign has reported receiving from his political consultant. Osborne suggested that those contributions originated from a local Muslim family who he implied were related to a Palestinian terrorist organization and that the funds were filtered through the consultant’s name so that the true donors’ names would not show up on Chamberlin’s financial reports. Chamberlin said he received no campaign contributions from the family Osborne was alluding to, adding that he is the most “pro-Israel” candidate in the race.

For his part, Osborne has a lengthy history of delivering anti-Muslim rhetoric through his sermons at local churches. In 2017, he gained local notoriety following sermons warning congregants that the Gospel of Islam was infiltrating public schools. Osborne is also the school administrator for the Ocala Christian Academy.

Osborne’s meritless innuendo against the local Palestinian family, who are long-term residents of Marion County, bordered on slander to this reporter.

Osborne asked Juarez why so many trial lawyers were contributing to his campaign. Juarez said that was not true. A review of the financial records by the Gazette found no basis for Osborne’s statement. Juarez said he recently put $20,000 of personal funds into his account to meet the future needs of his campaign.

Pyles was asked if elected if he’d feel pressured to go along with the demands of groups like the Florida Medical Association. Pyles said he expects he agrees with them on some subjects. For example, Pyles feels the practice of medicine is under attack. “Everyone wants to be a doctor, but no one wants to go to school,” he said. Pyles thinks this needs stricter regulation.

Stone was asked about supporting an adoption bill that included homosexual adoption when he was the deputy whip for the House Speaker. Stone said he was performing his role trying to get support for a bill that supported adoptions when in the 11th hour, he claimed Democrats inserted a clause to the bill that allowed homosexuals to adopt. Stone said he voted to support the bill, feeling he had no choice but to do so, adding that he resigned his position as the deputy whip the following day.

In closing, Albright said his agenda was based solely on the needs of Marion County residents.

Chamberlin said he intended to go to Tallahassee to help Gov. Ron DeSantis. Chamberlin claimed he wanted to do away with medical and college tuition benefits going to illegal aliens.  “Hey, there are only two genders. Two! We know that, right? We have got to teach the right things to our schools and address them in our school problem.”

Juarez said he felt he was a good communicator and good negotiator and felt compelled to run based on the lessons he’d learned throughout his life, particularly what he learned while navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. Juarez promised to serve and then go back to private life and vowed, “I will fight for you. No one owns me. No one will ever own me.”

Pyles said he wanted to fight inflation at the gas pump and in the grocery line and particularly emphasized battling personal injury lawsuit awards he claimed cause auto insurance rates to go up.

Stone said he is focused on getting money from the state for local infrastructure, and that his knowledge of the political system based on previous experience would make him most effective in helping Marion County.

Of the five, only Stone acknowledged having a political action committee (PAC). He told the crowd he’d used the PAC over the past 15 years to help candidates across Florida. The Florida Department of Elections lists Stone as the chairperson for a PAC called Leaders for a Better Florida.

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