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Close vote could mean retreat for Jim Fowler

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By GREG HAMILTON, Citrus Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 15, 2002

You're Jim Fowler, an eight-year County Commission veteran who has buried every challenger you've ever faced at the polls, and you've just been taken to the limit by two political rookies in your party's primary election.

You won the race, but by 27 votes out of 12,009 cast, and you had to sweat it out until the final precinct reported in.

You then had to wait until the unscanned and provisional ballots were counted and, because your margin of victory was less than one-quarter of 1 percent, you had to endure a manual recount of the ballots.

You won the bellwether precincts of Sugarmill Woods and Beverly Hills, but by slim margins. You were hammered in the largest precinct in Homosassa Springs, where the fires of anger over the Halls River condo project burn hottest.

You lost the absentee votes. You lost the precincts that comprise your commission district. You lost your own precinct, for crying out loud.

You avoided a runoff election only because new state election laws eliminated the October runoffs.

You raised more campaign money than your two challengers combined, more than three times as much as your closest competitor, Joyce Valentino.

You dumped about $3,000 into broadcast ads, and more than $6,000 for ads in the newspaper that endorsed you (and its sister publication in Beverly Hills). You had to wince when you saw the anti-Fowler ads that a citizens' group, furious with you about your Halls River vote, ran in that same newspaper.

You spent $3,700 with an Alexandria, Va., company on a political survey. Who conducts polls in a Citrus County commission race, especially a primary? You've been on the board for two terms, you currently serve as commission chairman -- what could you possibly need to know about the electorate that you haven't learned through that experience?

You spent all of that money, worked the forums (if not the grass roots) and all you got was a 27-vote victory?

Your victory on Tuesday night was so close that it moved your commission colleague, Josh Wooten, to tag you on election night with a facetious nickname: "Landslide Fowler."

Kind of makes you think.

Most sobering is that you can't help but realize that 60 percent of the voters in your own party didn't want you to represent them.

And waiting on the November ballot is Scott Adams, a no-party candidate who shouldn't stand a chance against the standard bearer of the dominant party in Citrus County -- except that you remember September 2000.

That's when Adams, for all of his bluster, was the top vote getter in the GOP primary for the District 5 commission seat. Sure, he lost in the runoff (we still had them then) but by only 200-some votes. Had Sugarmill Woods not gone so strongly for Millie King (369 to 98), Adams would have won the nomination.

You take him lightly at your own risk.

You still have your winning streak intact, however. Sure, it was close on Tuesday, but you still won, right?

But that ignores some ominous signals.

No opponent has ever gotten within hailing distance of you -- until now.

In September 1994, you made your political debut with 49 percent of the votes in the GOP primary. None of the other three challengers topped 20 percent. You cruised into office by polishing off your Democratic rival 55 percent to 45 percent.

Your juggernaut continued to roll in 1998, when you won the GOP primary with 52 percent, leaving your two opponents to split the remainder. You won re-election in November 56 percent to 44 percent.

You took those victories, and the truckloads of campaign money from the building industry, as signs of a mandate. You have a vision for the future of Citrus County, and it dovetails nicely with the business community's agenda. Even the little people must like you -- just look at those margins of victory!

You're looking at the results from Tuesday and maybe things aren't so rosy anymore. A first-time candidate nearly took you down in the closest County Commission race in 40 years. Your fellow Republicans, including a number of people who switched parties just to vote against you, spoke loudly.

You're Jim Fowler. Are you listening?

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