A chance to attend President Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union address in 1985 steered a congressional intern toward Republican politics, even though she came from a family that had been a force in the Florida Democratic Party for generations.
Struck by Reagan’s ability to bring people together, "at that moment, I became a Republican,” said Florida House Majority Leader Dana Young. Now, at 51, Young is an attorney and conservative power-broker who has political ambitions in her home state.
Born and raised in Tallahassee, her grandfather, William Randolph Hodges, was president of the Florida Senate. Her uncle, Democrat Gene Hodges, served in the Florida House. Her father, Don Duden, was assistant secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
After earning a degree in political science from Florida State, Young got a law degree from the University of Virginia. As a land use and environmental attorney, she said she found herself lured into lawmaking.
She won her first race to represent Tampa in a bruising campaign against Democratic businesswoman Stacy Frank in 2010.
“That was an extremely contentious race. The Democratic Party had targeted that particular race as their No. 1 priority in Florida,” Young said.
The two wrangled over hot-button issues, including Cuba, President Barack Obama’s health care law and gay rights, which Young opposed. And she advocated strict immigration laws.
“When it comes to illegal immigration, we can’t get tough enough,” she said in a campaign video at the time. “We need the Arizona law here.”
The “Arizona Law” is a controversial measure that gives law enforcement, in certain instances, powers to demand proof of legal immigration.
Young also infuriated the LGBT community with last-minute mailers taking aim at Frank for supporting same-sex marriage and adoption by gay couples.
She garnered 56 percent of the vote and then was re-elected twice, running unopposed each time.
Young moved into the leadership ranks and then Florida House Speaker Steve Crisafulli chose her as majority leader.
“She has the ability to be firm in her principles while still being able to find compromise with other members,” he said.
She has sponsored more than 20 bills that became law.
Mark Pafford, the Democratic Leader in the Florida House, said he disagrees with Young on many issues, but appreciates her willingness to talk with her colleagues across the aisle and help to create a collegial atmosphere.
This year, Young’s turning her sights to the Florida Senate and this time has a Democratic opponent, newly announced candidate Bob Buesing, a Tampa attorney. He has called her positions extreme and destructive.
“I want to send kids to school. She wants to make sure they get guns when they get there,” he said in an interview.
Young has voted for open-carry gun laws on college campuses. In 2010, she touted her support for gun rights with flyers showing her aiming a rifle.
“There is ample proof that gun-free zones do not protect law-abiding citizens,” Young said. “Instead, they are often seen as an invitation to those that would do us harm, because they know they could not be stopped by a law-abiding gun owner.”
Young also has joined others in the GOP in attacking Obama’s efforts to normalize relations with Cuba.
The race may be close. District 18 was recently redrawn to make it almost evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.