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In Western Palm Beach County, education, veterans benefits key issues

A Royal Palm Beach small business owner and a former Wellington councilman are going head-to-head for the Florida House of Representatives seat that encompasses much of Palm Beach County’s western communities.

State politics newcomers, Republican Laurel Bennett and Democrat Matt Willhite defeated challengers in their respective primaries to secure a spot on the Nov. 8 ballot. The seat was vacated by House Minority Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, who was ineligible because of term limits.

Bennett is the CEO and founder of PHR Solutions, a medical records company in Royal Palm Beach. She ran for mayor of Royal Palm Beach unsuccessfully in 2012, and this is her first effort into state-level politics.

Willhite, a Palm Beach County Fire Rescue captain, spent the past eight years serving on the Wellington Village Council before he was also forced out because of term limits.

Both candidates are heavily focused on veteran’s benefits.

Bennett’s husband is a veteran, and she said it’s always a battle to get his benefits. She wants reform on the state and national level. In some cases, illegal immigrants are getting benefits that veterans are not, she said.

“We have homeless veterans on the street corners not getting the benefits that illegals are,” she said.

Serving eight years in the Navy, Willhite is also pushing for veterans benefits. When they come back from combat, it’s often hard to integrate back into daily life, he said. Issues like post traumatic stress disorder exacerbate the problem and can lead to suicides.

“It’s not like we’re talking about huge number of people to make sure we take care of when they’re putting their lives on the line for us,” he said.

Willhite is also focused on education.

Teacher pay is a big issue that causes turnover in the schools, he said. He would support putting more state money into the system to improve school and pay for the teachers, adding that the sales tax referendum in Palm Beach County would be a good start.

After college loans and cost of living, it is sometimes hard for teachers to make ends meet. A former Wellington teacher wrote a letter in the Palm Beach Post about why she was leaving teaching after 10 years.

“You have to love your job,” Willhite said, “but you also have to be able to feed your family or start a family with the money you earn.”

For Bennett, a key educational focus is ending the common core.

The system of testing is designed to standardize education across states, but she said it’s not working. She wants education to be tailored to the students, allowing gifted children to flourish and others to keep up or get extra help.

“It’s the children that we need to cater to, not the testing,” she said. “And that’s holding us back.”

Both candidates also cited a need for transportation infrastructure funding with the growing population in the western communities like Wellington and Royal Palm Beach.

A veteran of some expensive Wellington races, Willhite has a massive lead in fund raising. He has raised more than $150,000 compared to Bennett’s less than $5,000.

But she is happy with the race she has run in the typically Democrat heavy district. She thinks her commitment to the residents has gotten her this far and she hopes it continues.

Willhite said he and his team are knocking on doors every day and he will continue the effort through Election Day.

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