SOUTH FLORIDA — Candidates seeking the state Senate District 39 seat have ramped up efforts entering the final leg of the closely watched race.

Seat 39, which represents residents from Monroe County and parts of southern and western Miami-Dade County, is being vacated by term-limited Republican Anitere Flores.

This is one of the most highly contested races among the districts. The Republican Party has held a majority of the state Senate’s 40 districts since 1995.

State Rep. Javier Fernandez, D-Coral Gables, is attempting to prevent state Rep. Ana Maria Rodriguez, R-Miami, from keeping the seat in Republican hands.

Fernandez is an attorney and former lobbyist, while Rodriguez has been a realty and hospital lobbyist.

Both candidates say they have ramped up canvassing efforts and making phone calls.

“Of course from a healthy distance,” Fernandez said. “And the response is favorable. Our fundraising has been strong and preliminary polling results shows I’m in the lead.”

Rodriguez said that it’s been challenging going door to door wearing a mask.

“I’m knocking on about 100 doors a day,” she said.

Both candidates currently reside outside the district but have either moved or are in the process of moving within district boundaries.

Fernandez, who has rented an apartment in Tavernier, said that securing state Stewardship funding awarded to Monroe County to clean up nearshore waters that was vetoed last year remains critical.

“What we need is funding predictability,” he said. “I will propose it to be recurring from the Land Acquisition Fund budget so that the county can plan to match dollars and accelerate projects.”

Rodriguez, who is in the process of selling her home outside the district, pledged to make the environment a top priority.

“Monroe County has done an incredible job going from septic to central sewer,” she said. “We have funded water projects for Everglades restoration to combat blue-green algae and red tide. I don’t know what our budget shortfalls will be due to the COVID-19 pandemic but I will prioritize to fully fund the environmental sector.”

There are areas in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties that are susceptible to rising seas and tidal flooding. Both candidates have a plan.

“One thing is serious is that both counties need to protect its taxpayers’ base,” Fernandez said. “My goal is to get the state to take out a loan. It’s the right time given how cheap the interest rates are. We need to budget this as a line item in recurring revenues, Florida Forever possibly or general fund sources. Rather than wait to do this piecemeal, we’ll have it set aside to do this at all levels across government.”

Rodriguez too said mitigating flooding is one of her priorities.

“This is something that has to be addressed and funded. There are other things that can be cut from the budget to help fund projects to combat flooding,” she said.

Rodriguez pointed to her support as a state representative for other Keys projects.

“I sponsored a funding bill that would bring $500,000 to the Stock Island desalination plant, but was vetoed due to COVID,” she said. “I will continue to work hard and secure funding. I anticipate things will stabilize as the economy opens back up. I also secured $1 million for the Habitat for Humanity of the Upper Keys Windley Key project and proposed $200,000 in appropriations to the Dolphin Research Center.”

Rodriguez and Fernandez differ on South Florida’s, particularly Florida City’s, rate of growth and its impact to Monroe County’s hurricane evacuation time.

“This cumulative growth over time begins to tax roadways, and when added all up, degrade evacuation time,” Fernandez said. “I’m a proponent of reinstating a Regional Planning Council to make sure cities and counties don’t overgrow. Developments of a certain threshold no longer require a state overview of the capacity to make sure we have the infrastructure in place to support the growth. We need someone reviewing local city growth.”

Rodriguez said Florida City’s growth will not bottleneck the Keys’ evacuation time.

“While there has been a lot of development in Homestead, South Dade and even the Keys, there is the Turnpike, Krome Avenue and U.S. 1 as evacuation routes. Even though there has been large growth, there are numerous routes to head north. It’s manageable. There’s no impact to the leaving time,” she said.

Florida’s unemployment system, laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic, is among Rodriguez’s top issues.

The state offers a maximum of $275 a week, based on earnings, for up to 12 weeks, which is among the lowest in the nation.

“Our unemployment situation is weak. The amount that we pay per week is unacceptable,” she said. “The cost of living in South Florida is not aligned. It’s been way too long since it’s been revised. The accessibility in the beginning of the pandemic was horrific. We need to do better. We need to transition to a higher dollar amount and make the system more user friendly.”

Fernandez too said he’d like to overhaul the system.

“People don’t have access to healthcare for their families. As we move to reopening, we need to modernize unemployment. Employees don’t have time off if they’re affected by COVID. There needs to be some level of a paid benefit to help us not to the spread this disease. This is an issue I want to put on the table,” he said.

Affordable housing is another area of concern, and Fernandez says home rule is part of the solution, not state mandates that protect transient rentals.

“Inventory is tight,” Fernandez said. “I see just how much short-term rentals are driving up the cost. Local communities need to set their own rules on short-term rentals.”

Fernandez is critical his opponent for running on a “national narrative” that has nothing to do with a state Senate race.

“As senators, we don’t defund city police departments. We don’t oversee their city budgets. She should know better,” he said.

Rodriguez said maintaining safety within the communities and making sure people have adequate resources for safety are part of a state senator’s responsibilities.

“Make sure our communities are supported with the resources they need,” she said.

Celso D. Alfonso who is running with no party affiliation could not be reached for comment.

This story has been updated to identify Javier Fernandez as a former lobbyist.

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