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Florida’s Parental Rights Bill Sponsor to Be Replaced in Special Election

Florida state Rep. Joe Harding, the Republican who sponsored the Parental Rights in Education bill, will be replaced in a special election in March, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced on Dec. 21.

The special election to fill Harding’s seat has been scheduled for March 7, 2023, and the general election for May 16, 2023.

Harding gained fame in January of 2022 when his bill ignited ferocious debate around the country and even the world, and was misleadingly labeled by opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay bill.”

The bill prohibits classrooms teaching on gender-identity, sexual orientation, and other sex-ed topics to children in third grade or younger. It also prohibits schools from keeping secrets from parents on any topic related to their child.

Attendees at the “We Say Gay-nesville” rally in Gainesville, Fla., to listen to speakers opposed to the Parental Rights in Education bill on March 19, 2022. The bill was recently passed by the Florida Legislature, but not yet signed into law by the state’s governor. (Natasha Holt/The Epoch Times)

Harding resigned from representing Florida’s 24th district a day after the Department of Justice indicted him for wire fraud, money laundering, and making false statements.

He stands accused of defrauding the Small Business Association by falsely obtaining over $150,000 in coronavirus-related loans. Harding maintains that he’s paid back “every penny.”

“I want the public and my constituents to know that I fully repaid the loan and cooperated with investigators as requested,” he announced in a press release. He added that his lawyers advised him not to speak about the charges publicly.

Harding pleaded not guilty to the charges, which could net him 35 years in prison.

According to the indictment, Harding lied about how many people he employed, submitted fake bank statements, and said businesses he had closed were still open. After the indictment, Harding resigned from office.

A legacy preserved

But his current legal trouble doesn’t erase the former lawmaker’s legacy, said Jeff Childers, an attorney, blogger, and parental rights activist. When opponents of Harding’s bill were vilifying him across social media, Childers urged blog readers to send Harding donations to his reelection campaign as a thank you for the bill. Their gifts of appreciation totaled more than $62,000.

“There are plenty of folks who are fixtures, well-known conservatives in Florida, that were not brave enough to take that on,” Childers said, referring to the bill designed to curb the sexualization of young children. “Representative Harding did it, and I don’t think anybody can ever take that away from him.”

About 100 protesters, angry about restricted access to abortions and the recently passed Parental Rights in Education law in Florida, march toward a conservative youth conference in Tampa on July 23, 2022. (Natasha Holt/The Epoch Times)

Harding was serving his first term as a member of the Florida House of Representatives when he introduced the Parental Rights in Education bill. It was one of a handful of legislative moves in Florida to fight against radical ideologies in school.

In the past few years, Florida has called for investigations into the COVID-19 vaccine, revoked Disney’s self-governing power after the company got political, and bused illegal immigrants to enclaves supportive of sanctuary cities for illegal immigrants, as previously reported.

“This idea that parents are the ultimate deciders for their children, the ultimate decision-makers for their children, really just blew my mind that that was so controversial,” Harding told The Epoch Times in September.

Florida attorney Jeff Childers, photographed outside his law office on Oct. 12, 2021, began posting daily updates on policies related to COVID-19 in his Coffee & Covid blog shortly after lockdowns began. (Amber Bertrand for The Epoch Times)

Fellow advocates for parental rights legislation were saddened to hear that Harding has had doubt cast on his integrity, Childers said.

“I regret very much that what looked like a fine career in politics is coming to, probably, a permanent end,” Childers said. “But I wish the best for former Representative Harding.”

Harding was special because he’d had courage enough to sponsor the controversial bill, Childers said. For doing so, the young father from TK CITY faced death threats, a deluge of hateful phone calls, and opposition from President Joe Biden.

“They demonized him and made him into a caricature,” Childers said.

The good news, though, he says, is the parental rights movement has “a momentum and velocity that nothing could stop,” Childers added.

Childers also said he believes that Harding’s alleged crime isn’t uncommon among politicians. But that doesn’t make it justifiable.

“If we did audit all of our politicians in this country—federal and state—and required them to disclose publicly how much each of them received in PPP runs, I think Americans would be very surprised at what they saw,” Childers said.

Florida’s Future

Harding’s charge may be an emotional blow to his supporters, but it’s unlikely to greatly change the overall legislative landscape in Florida.

Harding’s district of Ocala is strongly Republican. He won 64 percent of votes in the last general election, according to Ballotpedia.

And even if a Democrat wins the special election, Republicans hold more than two-thirds of Florida’s House seats. At least three Republicans have filed as candidates to replace him.

Charles Stone, a candidate for representative in Florida’s 24th state representative district. (Courtesy of the Charles Stone campaign)

Charlie Stone, a former representative for District 22, will run in Harding’s district, his campaign manager Brian Graham told The Epoch Times. Stone left office after reaching Florida’s term limit. He can now return to politics.

He has served in Florida politics since 2004, according to his state House of Representatives page.

“Charlie Stone is a sure thing,” Graham said. “Perhaps after controversy, voters like a sure thing.”

Stone has a proven track record of voting for Second Amendment rights, even when facing party pressure to do otherwise, Graham added. His past service in office likely will set him up for a win, Graham predicted.

“As a former representative, he was very popular,” Graham said. “His wife was on the county commission. He’s successful with hardly any negatives. The guy was super well-liked.”

Ryan Chamberlin, a conservative author, had planned to challenge Harding for his seat in 2024. Now, he plans to move up his timetable.

Conservative local businessman Jose Juarez has announced that he’ll run for the seat Harding vacated as well.

As of yet, no Democrats have filed as candidates in the election.

Jackson Elliott

Jackson Elliott reports on small-town America for The Epoch Times. He learned to write and seek truth at Northwestern University. He believes that the most important actions are small and that as Dostoevsky says, everyone is responsible for everyone and for everything. Contact Jackson by emailing jackson.elliott@epochtimes.us

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