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Lack of Democrats livens District 4 race

As Jim Fowler defends his commission seat, voters weigh three GOP hopefuls and an independent.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 14, 2002


INVERNESS -- Wilma Anderson remembers when the Democrats held every local office, easily swatting away the few Republican challengers who emerged from time to time.

"They tried their luck but they usually didn't win back then," said Anderson, the county's elections supervisor from 1966 to 1996 and a Democrat. "Everyone in the courthouse was a Democrat, all the (county) commissioners and everyone, and things ran smoothly."

Over the past decade, however, the influx of Republican retirees -- and, some say, squabbling within the local Democratic ranks -- has shifted the balance of power.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the race for County Commissioner Jim Fowler's seat in District 4. Fowler, a two-term Republican, has drawn opposition from two GOP challengers and a conservative-leaning independent -- and nary a Democratic soul.

Unless a Democratic hopeful pays the $2,751 qualifying fee to enter the race before July 26, Citrus County's once-dominant party will sit on the sidelines as the most-contested local primary plays out.

"Sometimes candidates come out at the last second, and there are some possibilities out there," said Joe Cino, chairman of the local Democratic Executive Committee. "Sometimes they wait until the last second for their own personal reasons."

As it is now, Heatherwood activist Joyce Valentino and Inverness business owner John Thrumston will battle Fowler in a three-way Republican primary Sept. 10. The winner will face Hernando stucco contractor Scott Adams, an independent candidate, in the Nov. 5 general election.

With Fowler's support of the Suncoast Parkway and Halls River Retreat still fresh in voters' minds, the widely watched race could become a referendum on the kind of growth residents want.

And without any Democrat to support, some voters are switching parties so they can have a say in the pivotal primary.

"I feel that Jim Fowler is more for big business and not as sensitive to the environmental issues in the county as I would like to see," said Dorothy Hahn, a longtime Homosassa Democrat who recently switched parties to vote for Valentino.

"A lot of people have switched for me," Valentino said. "The citizens don't feel they're being represented, and that some county commissioners are just geared toward development and growth and not concerned with our natural environment."

Thrumston is also picking up some Democrats, like Floral City resident Evan Thomas, who recently turned Republican to vote in this race.

"(Thrumston) is a fisherman and a hunter and he may be a little bit more worried about the water situation in the lakes than the other candidates," Thomas said.

There is a downside for defecting Democrats: They miss their chance to vote in their party's other primaries for governor and several state races.

Voters have until Aug. 12 to switch parties in time to vote in the primary, but so far, only a few have done so.

During the past 2 1/2 months, 102 residents switched to the Republican Party, while 66 others switched to the Democratic Party, Elections Supervisor Susan Gill said. (Those numbers do not include new residents registering to vote as they have moved into the county.)

"There have been some," Gill said. "But it's hard to know what is the motivation behind someone making a party change."

* * *

Whenever a race will be decided in the primary, Florida law makes it a "universal primary" in which everyone can vote, regardless of party affiliation.

But that won't be the case in the District 4 race, since there will still be a choice in the Nov. 5 general election between the Republican primary winner and independent candidate Adams.

Adams ran as a Republican for a different County Commission seat two years ago, but he suspects that some GOP officials favored one of his opponents instead of remaining impartial. So this time he filed as an independent, a move that comes with the perk of a guaranteed spot on the November ballot without a costly primary battle.

"I'm hoping the Democrats would possibly consider endorsing me," Adams said. "I think they know that I'm a good person who plans on doing a good job and representing all the people of Citrus County."

It is unclear how formidable Adams will be in the general election. Two years ago, he took the most votes in a three-way Republican primary but lost in a close runoff a month later against Millie King.

"I've heard people say the general election is going to be decided in the primary, and that is probably going to be the case, but you never underestimate your opponent," Thrumston said.

"(Adams) could be a very dangerous threat in this race," Thrumston continued. "He didn't do bad last time. He pulled a lot of votes, and people didn't think he would."

For now, Thrumston is focusing on the Republican primary. Last year's election reforms ended runoff races for this year, so the person with the most votes Sept. 10 goes to the November election.

Fowler says he has a strong record from his eight years as a commissioner. And so far he has amassed a $30,630 campaign account, three times the amount of funds raised by either Valentino or Thrumston.

Although he is still asked about his support for the Suncoast Parkway, Fowler said he is getting fewer questions about his February vote in favor of Halls River Retreat, a 54-unit timeshare project planned for Homosassa.

"More and more they're understanding the issue and seeing we made the right decision," Fowler said.

"One, Citrus County is not involved in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit with the developer as we were with Joe Redner (a Tampa Bay strip club mogul who successfully sued Citrus County when it shut down his Homosassa club in 1988).

"Two, it rang some alarm bells with mixed use (zoning) and we fixed that," Fowler continued. "And three, we protected an American's constitutional right to their property."

* * *

So where have the Democrats gone?

Party leader Cino said the retirees flocking to Citrus County have tipped the scales in Republicans' favor. As of June 30, registered Republicans outnumbered Democratic voters, 34,257 to 33,537.

"That's demographics, and you can't control that," Cino said. "You can't put up a sign saying we only want Democrats to move into Citrus County."

But others say some of the blame rests with Cino and his leadership style.

"There is no Democratic candidate for the simple reason that Joe Cino is incapable of recruiting viable candidates," longtime Democrat Jim Bitter said. "He's intensely disliked by a lot of people in his own party, and the party does not have a chance to regroup and come back until Cino is out of there and we've got some decent leadership."

After Cino had a heated verbal exchange in May with former Crystal River City Council member Mike Gudis at a Democratic Executive Committee meeting, some party members called for Cino to step down.

"They're arguing among themselves," said Lee Cloward, a lifelong Democrat who lives in the Inverness Highlands. "There is no clear, agreed-upon leadership."

Cloward recently turned Republican -- on paper only, he says -- so he could vote for Valentino in the primary.

"I'm missing out on the vote between (Bill) McBride and (Janet) Reno, and I hate to miss that, but that's the way it goes," Cloward said. "I'm choosing local control over something I feel I have less control over."

Fowler said he also had some Democrats in his corner, but they're keeping their party affiliation and planning to vote for him in November, assuming he defeats Valentino and Thrumston.

Fowler likened the lack of Democrats in this race to the lack of challengers in the sheriff's race two years ago.

"The assumption I get from that is that people are pretty well satisfied with the representation they have," Fowler said.

-- Bridget Hall Grumet can be reached at 860-7303 or bhall@sptimes.com.

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