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    Nelson edges out Barley, Michaud

    By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published September 11, 2002

    Environmental activist Mary Barley, who was targeted for defeat by the citrus industry, was trailing school librarian David Nelson on Tuesday in the Democratic primary for state agriculture commissioner.

    Winter Park veterinarian Andrew "Dr. Andy" Michaud was in last place. Neither he nor Barley could be reached for comment late Tuesday.

    The winner will face Republican incumbent Charles Bronson in the Nov. 5 general election.

    Nelson took the lead in early returns despite being a political novice who ran his campaign out of his Miami home. Before the election, pollsters attributed his remarkably high poll numbers to voters' confusing him with U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.

    Nelson, 39, said he paid for no ads, instead relying on personal appearances at produce festivals around the state where he handed out "thousands and thousands of cards." Since school began, he said, he has campaigned only at night and on weekends because "my mortgage company doesn't understand when I'm not working."

    Nelson benefited from citrus industry efforts to defeat Barley, whom leaders of the $1.3-billion industry declared an "alarming political threat."

    Agricultural interests, who prefer Bronson, worked with a prominent GOP consulting firm in crafting TV ads and fliers to send to Democrats attacking Barley for changing parties and donating money to Republicans as well as Democrats. Calling itself Florida's Working Families, the citrus-connected group behind the ads said it was concerned that Barley might junk the state's canker eradication program.

    The same group attacked Barley on a second front by paying for TV ads touting Nelson, who had avoided criticism of Bronson. Nelson said he liked the ad but had no contact with the people who produced and paid for it.

    Barley, a lifelong Republican who switched parties to jump into the race at the last minute in July, attempted to fight back with TV ads and direct-mail fliers linking her candidacy with that of Democratic attorney general hopeful George Sheldon. Sheldon did worse than Barley in Tuesday's election.

    Barley's last-minute candidacy led to a challenge to her right to run. A member of the firefighters' union, which had endorsed Bronson, sued over questions about whether she had really signed her qualifying papers. After Barley testified that she had indeed signed them, the firefighter dropped the suit.

    Bronson, who as a state senator was the bane of environmental groups, had been seen as vulnerable to a well-funded candidate such as Barley because he has lost two previous statewide campaigns. He was appointed to his post last year by Gov. Jeb Bush.

    Barley, 56, of Islamorada is a wealthy developer's widow best known for her work to restore the Everglades, which led to Time magazine's naming her a "Hero of the Planet" in 1999. Like Nelson, she had not run for office before.

    Michaud, 43, lost a race for the Legislature two years ago. He also did no advertising for this race but was endorsed by some of the state's papers.

    The commissioner of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services oversees an agency that safeguards consumers from scams and promotes Florida's agricultural economy. The commissioner also is a member of the Florida Cabinet, voting on statewide issues. The position pays $119,414 a year.

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