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Happytown: Saunders vs. Peña

Democrat Joe Saunders faces Republican opponent Marco Peña in the race for newly drawn state House District 49

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Kids in the hall:Democrat Joe Saunders (above) faces Republican Marco Peña (below) in newly drawn House District 49

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As the shattering horizon of Election Day approaches, we've been doing – and will continue to do – our best to focus on the individual races that are most likely to make a solid dent in your repossessed life. We're calling them "Whistlestops," because we're quaint like that, and we're reaching out to both Republican and Democratic candidates who can stand the sight of us. Some, admittedly, cannot.

We kicked off last week with congressional hopefuls Todd Long (who now wants to make Puerto Rico a state) and Alan Grayson (who is "very disappointed" in us), though neither returned phone calls from our persistent scribe.

This week brings a very special (even somewhat gay, coincidentally!) episode of Whistlestops – so special, in fact, that we're yanking it up into our standard Happytown™ pleasure hole, sans snark – in which we explore the dynamics of yet another newly drawn district, Florida House District 49, out by the University of Central Florida.

Perhaps having something to do with the East Orlando district's proximity to various educational portals, what sets the District 49 stakes apart from most is its youth. The race is a textbook study on the current ideologies of the left (equal rights, health care, middle-class jobs) and the right (business interests, bootstraps, budget cuts).

Joe Saunders, a 29-year-old community organizer who's worked with groups like Equality Florida and Planned Parenthood, frequently drops the word "holistic" into discussions about how he will deal with issues facing the legislature. On education, he says that "some charter schools do a great job," though he is vehemently opposed to the so-called parent-trigger education initiative, which allows parents with kids enrolled in struggling public schools to take control of them and potentially even convert them into charter schools. Florida's parent-trigger bill was narrowly defeated in the state Senate but is expected to come back in next year's legislative session. He believes that public education is a constitutional right, and sees much of the Republican supermajority's emphasis on "reform" through privatization and budget slashes as "really scary." A proponent of arts education – he co-chaired the Osceola Arts for a Complete Education Coalition – Saunders opposes the tendency of Florida counties to redline extracurricular and arts programs in favor of teaching to the test.

On other issues, Saunders walks a similarly common sense-driven line. He's for more accountability when it comes to the tax incentives so freely lavished upon big businesses in Florida. He can't understand Republicans' unwillingness to expand Medicaid in the state, especially considering that the expansion is free under the Federal Affordable Care Act through 2020. "Your war with [President] Obama should not be fought on the backs of Floridians," he says. "Either you are ready to help these families or you are not." In short, he's measured and confident in political discourse, a sort of sure-footed balance he says he gained from a "head start" in battling a contentious primary with civil rights attorney Shayan Elahi. (Elahi has since endorsed Saunders.)

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