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Candidate Reno's campaign stop showcases Dade City

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 3, 2002

The chairman of the Pasco Democratic Party missed Janet Reno's campaign stop in Dade City Friday afternoon.

LaVaunne Miller had a good reason.

She was in Orlando for Bill McBride's campaign kickoff.

Miller also is business representative for the United School Employees of Pasco. Teacher unions are backing McBride instead of Reno in the race to oppose incumbent Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.

It didn't stop Paula Smith from showing her support. Smith is an art teacher at Gulf High School and she and her family own Smith's Antiques on Meridian Avenue in Dade City.

Friday afternoon, Smith's mother, Charlotte Roush, charged forward with a sandwich board and aimed the message directly at the Bush supporters across the street.

"Go girl. Vote Reno for governor."

If the quartet of Bush loyalists noticed, they didn't respond. Nor did they speak when Reno walked over to shake their hands. Too bad. Until then, they had been the most conspicuous thing about Reno's visit. Well, they and the assembly of journalists crowding the street corner for Reno's red truck tour of Florida. Hey, it's hard to beat extensive media coverage just for sipping ice tea at Lunch on Limoges.

It is the kind of attention that comes after you spend eight years as U.S. attorney general.

Friday afternoon, the sidewalk sound bite centered on the importance of education. What about the teacher's union endorsing McBride?

"I'm sure we will have that back," she answered.

Reno and McBride, until recently, a largely unknown lawyer from Tampa, are the top contenders for the Democratic nomination to run for governor. The field also includes House Minority Leader Lois Frankel and state Sen. Daryl Jones.

Reno's star power makes her the front-runner. The absence of a runoff election this year boosts her candidacy, too, since the others lack her name recognition. So much so, that the campaign focuses on the Bush record in Tallahassee. It's as if the nomination is a formality.

Reno is the third Democratic gubernatorial hopeful to visit Pasco this campaign season. Though Republicans hold an edge in voter enrollment, it hasn't meant sweeping results for the GOP at the polls. A candidate named Bush has carried Pasco County only once since 1990, that was Jeb in 1998. George W. lost Pasco by 982 votes in 2000.

Reno's support is thin among many Pasco Democrats. No party officials attended Friday's photo opportunity. Dade City Mayor Scott Black, a Republican serving in a nonpartisan post, was the only elected office-holder in sight. As president of the Florida League of Cities, he cannot pass up an opportunity to chat in the ear of a potential governor.

Overall, the campaign stop served more as an opportunity for the Greater Dade City Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Main Street to showcase the city than for Reno to collect votes. Publicity is the real aim. The 15-day red truck tour brought the national spotlight from CNN and CBS for its first two days and newspaper coverage throughout.

How the visit played locally is difficult to determine. Many in Pasco are supporting McBride after being jilted by Pete Peterson. He withdrew from the Democratic race in September, two weeks after collecting more than $5,000 at a Lake Jovita fundraiser. Let's face it, though. McBride is the third choice among many moderate Democrats, but rose to the top after U.S. Rep. Jim Davis and Peterson withdrew.

"I may vote for her (Reno) anyway," said school superintendent John Long. "I admire her. At a certain point, I think all Democrats will get behind her."

County Commissioner Peter Altman played host to a New Port Richey visit by Jones earlier this year. Fourteen people attended.

"The reality is there's been very little fundraising or support to get Pasco County any substantial statewide attention," said Altman. "I guess we need to see that all the candidates have pressure on them not to drop the ball and throw those liabilities back to us while they continue to promote lowering taxes and those sorts of things."

Reno echoed a similar sentiment responding to a journalist's question about unfunded mandates.

"I think when the budget crunch gets tight, we push the burden down on the ad valorem taxpayer," she said. "We need to work in a partnership with small towns and counties. We need to find out what they need and what we can do together."

For Smith, the art teacher, the answer is simple.

"They told us there would be all this money. Now. I'm worried about my job."

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