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Polling tactics miff candidate, her supporters

"Push polling,'' a technique in which a pollster leads voters to a conclusion about a candidate, is reported by state Rep. Nancy Argenziano.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 21, 2002


"Push polling," a technique in which a pollster leads voters to a conclusion about a candidate, is reported by state Rep. Nancy Argenziano.

CRYSTAL RIVER -- The telephone poll started innocuously enough: If the governor's election were today, would you vote for Jeb Bush or Janet Reno? Bush or Bill McBride?

After a couple of questions about general election issues, however, state Rep. Nancy Argenziano said the poll took a dirty turn into her race against state Sen. Richard Mitchell for the District 3 state Senate seat.

Would you vote for a candidate who voted against health care?

Who was removed from two committees because she was unstable?

Who helped get a permit for an incinerator in Citrus County?

"The accusations are just totally untrue," Argenziano, R-Crystal River, told the Times last week. "By twisting and distorting things like that, it's very unprofessional, and I think it's going to backfire."

Argenziano learned about the survey from supporters like Katie Lucas and Bill Shomer, who called her as soon as they hung up with the pollster.

"I was so irritated and frustrated by the end of the call," said Lucas, a Crystal River advertising executive. "It's so much better when you're trying to elaborate on the good things people have done instead of slamming the candidate."

"The average person that didn't know Nancy or something about what's going on, they wouldn't have a clue," added Shomer, a Belleview motorcycle salesman. "It was such a negative thing, I don't see how you would not come away with a negative perception."

Argenziano suspects the nursing home industry was behind the "push poll," a survey with slanted or misleading questions meant to leave a negative impression about a candidate.

She voted against an industry-supported bill last year that lowered the damage cap and raised the burden of proof for patients and families suing nursing homes for inadequate care.

Along the way, she sent a 25-pound, gift-wrapped box of cow manure to Jodi Chase, an Associated Industries of Florida lobbyist who came to Argenziano's office to watch on television as the nursing home bill passed.

Officials from Associated Industries did not return calls for comment Friday. Nor did Brian Ballard, a Tallahassee lobbyist for the Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care.

Protect Our Parents, a nursing home advocacy group spawned by the Florida Health Care Association, said it does not conduct push polls.

"Ms. Argenziano is a little paranoid," Protect Our Parents spokeswoman Kym Spell said. "The men and women who are a part of our organization will be active in elections across the state of Florida, and we certainly intend to do surveys before we advertise, but we don't do push polling."

Mitchell, D-Jasper, and the state Democratic Party also said it knew nothing about the poll.

"We're probably going to waste a lot of time if we focus on the polls and who says this and who does that," Mitchell said. "I never have paid a lot of attention to that, and I think we just need to get out and talk to the people."

Setting the record straight

Argenziano said she was removed from two committees last year for breaking rank with the party and voting her conscience, not for being "unstable."

Last July, House Speaker Tom Feeney removed Argenziano as chairwoman of the House Council for Healthy Communities after she voted against the nursing home bill he had supported.

Argenziano says she lost her seat in November on the House Fiscal Responsibility Council, a group that helps make budget decisions, for being too critical of certain budget cuts. She questioned why funding was being cut from programs for Alzheimer's patients and prescription drugs for the elderly while $27-million remained in the budget to compensate the owners of canker-stricken citrus trees.

"I fought deeply and very hard to protect my constituents, and I let my political career go down the tubes to protect my constituents," Argenziano said. "I could have gone along, and no one would have known the difference."

Argenziano did raise the eyebrows of several Mini Farms homeowners last month when she called the state Department of Environmental Protection about Ed Gerrits' permit application to operate a controversial wood-burning incinerator on County Road 495.

Argenziano said she was simply calling to ask about the status of the permit, something she often does for constituents. Several residents who oppose the incinerator, however, questioned whether she played a role in the DEP's decision to grant the permit. Both Argenziano and Deborah Getzoff, the DEP's southwest district manager, said the agency had decided to approve the permit before Argenziano called, and the lawmaker did not try to sway the DEP either way.

"That's what it means to be a legislator. You call to find the status of things for your constituents," Argenziano said. "That's a dirty way of twisting it."

And what about voting against health care?

"When I was Council for Healthy Communities chair, there was one bill that Rep. Frank Farkas did that almost everyone voted against," she said. "It was a bad bill. People know I wouldn't go against a health care bill that was good for them."

'Tis the season

Push polls are often followed by negative mailings, so Argenziano and her supporters are watching their mailboxes.

Argenziano believes Mitchell knows who conducted the push poll and could pre-empt the mailings if he wanted.

"I think Sen. Mitchell is a nice guy. We just have different philosophical approaches on things," Argenziano said. "If he allows this to happen, with mailouts with this kind of trash, that tells me maybe he's not as nice as I think he is."

But Mitchell said he knew nothing of the poll. He shrugged it off as a phenomenon of the political season, and said constituents have also told him of a recent poll that asked questions about him.

"All I can say is, this is the season," he said.

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

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