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Newcomer a favorite for county voters

Robert Schenck's victory in the GOP District 4 commission race is another in a line of county upsets.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 12, 2002


BROOKSVILLE -- When he announced his plans to run for County Commission District 4, Republican nominee Robert Schenck heard the warnings.

"People said my age would work against me," said Schenck, a 27-year-old school teacher who faced two seasoned opponents old enough to be his father. "In fact, it was just the opposite."

He nabbed a major newspaper endorsement in the primary season's final days, continued an aggressive door-to-door campaign to the wire and, on Tuesday, narrowly bested former Commissioner Paul Sullivan and outgoing two-term Spring Hill fire Commissioner Bob Kanner. Schenck won 33 of 53 precincts, including both in Timber Pines where Sullivan, who lost by only 426 votes, had expected things to go his way.

Veteran Hernando political observers attributed the result to voter frustration with the men who had their chance to lead and a willingness to give the new guy a try.

"He used his fresh newness and a grass roots campaign to his advantage," longtime Republican activist Tom Hogan Sr. said Wednesday.

"As always, an element of the voters have a preference to see completely fresh faces," said Bruce Snow, who served as county attorney for nearly three decades. "Couple that with the fact that a certain percentage of the population is anti-incumbent regardless of the individuals in the race."

Where Kanner and Sullivan brought the baggage of past votes, decisions and actions, Schenck carried no such burden. Many mentioned Commissioner Mary Aiken, who came out of nowhere in 2000 to win election, as an example that Schenck seemed to follow.

"It's a sign of the tide with some of the local elections," said Anna Liisa Covell, public relations committee chairwoman for the county Republicans. "They (voters) just like a clean sweep."

Sullivan said he heard from several voters Wednesday that they did not know Schenck, and that was fine with them.

"I guess they're so upset with government that they keep trying until they get the right combination," he said. "When you serve, you have a record. You can either rise on that record or you can fall on it."

Vince Vanni, a marketing consultant who worked for Kanner, suggested that Kanner might have won if not for his involvement in a fire district scandal in which three firefighters are accused of rape.

"I don't think he ever recovered from the situation," said Vanni, who stressed he no longer spoke on behalf of Kanner's campaign. "It was obvious that was still in everybody's minds."

Kanner did not return calls seeking comment.

Vanni contended that Schenck took votes from Kanner, who had been considered a front-runner until the firefighter rape investigation became public, and doubted that many switched from Kanner to Sullivan. Also, he said, the voter base has become younger and more diverse, with different interests than those who first elected Sullivan and Kanner years ago.

Schenck also benefitted from a year without party runoff elections, Hogan said.

"This is the first time we've had a three- or four-way race without a runoff," he said. "If (Schenck) had to go into a runoff with Paul Sullivan, who knows?"

As Schenck enters the general election against incumbent Chris Kingsley, Sullivan suggested, the "I'm a new face" campaign might wear thin. Schenck will have to talk intelligently about the issues to get by Kingsley, Sullivan said.

Sullivan said he supported Schenck and would help him study the issues, if Schenck wants the help. He added that he will not seek election in Hernando County again.

Schenck welcomed a working relationship with Sullivan and Kanner.

"We all had a common goal," he said. "Hopefully, we can all come together to achieve it."

He did not plan to change his campaign strategy much, though. "We're running the right kind of campaign. We're not trying to be negative. We're just trying to get out our message."

Kingsley, who began advertising only Sunday and has about $12,000 unspent compared to Schenck's remaining campaign coffer of $83, said he intended to focus on his platform and his record, too.

"As I said early on, I don't care who the other party puts on the ballot," Kingsley said. "I'm running for a position."

He rejected the notion that the county has an anti-incumbent mood, though he recognized that his voting record will come under scrutiny.

"When you're a county commissioner for four years, there's an opportunity for people to see you doing a lot of good. That's what I focus on," he said. "If you want to take and isolate one particular vote that you have a problem with, I would just ask that you take an overall look at the candidate."

Schenck and Kingsley will face off in the November general election.

-- Jeffrey S. Solochek covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to solochek@sptimes.com.

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