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Hopefuls hustle, despite the odds

Independent candidates running for the District 5 seat don't have a chance, according to an analyst. Yet they keep on trucking.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 29, 2002


Jack Gargan and Brian Moore know the pitfalls of running a third-party campaign.

Contributions come in small amounts. Low funding creates a reliance on free media exposure -- news reports, rather than paid advertisements. Public awareness and victory become a long shot at best.

Getting the message out, "that's the tough part," acknowledged Gargan, who tried to oust Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1994 and took a shot at U.S. Rep. Karen Thurman in 1998.

"I go to every newspaper. I go to every television station. I go to every forum where there are more candidates than interested residents," said Gargan, 71, of Cedar Key, founder of the national anti-incumbent organization Throw the Hypocritical Rascals Out.

Door-to-door visits barely scratch the surface, considering the need to reach about 436,000 potential voters, said Moore, 59, a Spring Hill resident who ran three times for mayor of Washington, D.C., never gaining more than 2.6 percent of the vote.

"I have to think smart," Moore said. Campaigning hinges on "my ability to impact the media on the issues."

Despite the odds, Gargan, Moore and David Werder of Spring Hill have jumped into the race for Florida's 5th Congressional District seat. They face Thurman -- the 10-year incumbent Democrat from Dunnellon with almost $1-million to spend and "anything she needs," according to the national party -- and Republican Ginny Brown-Waite, a term-limited Brooksville state senator with a growing bank account and heavy backing from the national GOP.

The mainstream parties consider the seat critical to who controls the House of Representatives. Political observers see the race as a tossup because of redistricting, which removed heavily Democratic areas from the district and replaced them with more Republican regions.

To the outsider candidates, it's an attractive situation.

Moore figures the district's new demographic split -- 42 percent Republican, 40 percent Democrat and 18 percent others -- will generate a vote divided between Thurman and Brown-Waite, giving hope to an independent who appeals to residents tired of the status quo. National media attention on this campaign, one of only a few competitive races for Congress, will provide otherwise inaccessible air time, he said.

To attract some of the media, Moore spends hours at his computer, e-mailing news releases.

Gargan also considers the redistricting a blessing. Thurman lost a strong part of her base in liberal Alachua County, he said, while no one has a clear advantage in newly added conservative areas of Lake, Sumter and Polk counties.

He counts on lingering name recognition from his two previous tilts against heavily favored incumbents to give him a boost. He also plans to run newspaper ads closer to Election Day, and to gain the endorsement of Minnesota's Reform Party Gov. Jesse Ventura.

Though they will make the race interesting, the independents stand no chance of winning, said analyst Amy Walter, House editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

"This is still going to be a race about Ginny Brown-Waite and Karen Thurman," Walter said. "Now, the third-party candidates can have some impact. But they're not going to have the resources to compete."

Some people will cast anti-incumbent votes regardless of the name, Walter said. But for a third-party candidate to make a real dent, "you need to be able to get out there and make your case." That means money for ads, fliers and signs.

Gargan scoffed at the idea of relying on cash to win. He has refused money from political action committees, corporations and special interest groups, and expects to raise only $15,000.

"Karen and Ginny are talking about raising as much as $3-million. That's crazy! That's criminal!" Gargan shouted. "Where is the $3-million coming from? It's not coming from the voters. . . . Then when it's time for them to vote on a crucial issue and they're in hock $3-million, who do you think they're going to cast their vote for? You, the voter, or the fat cats who donated the money to put them there?"

Moore called the system "corrupted" in favor of interest groups, and last week sought to interest voters in someone not beholden to specific groups.

Gargan appears more likely than the others to influence the race, Walter said, mainly because of his past. Fairly conservative, Gargan was predicted to peel votes from Brown-Waite, she said. She added quickly that it does not appear to be occurring.

In 1998, with no Republican in the race, Gargan grabbed 34 percent of the vote against Thurman as a Reform Party candidate. Four years earlier, he took 28 percent of the vote against Chiles. (He ran as a Democrat, unable to qualify as a no-party candidate.)

Gargan also gained a national reputation for his anti-incumbent efforts of 1990-92, his early support of Ross Perot for president and his tenure as national Reform Party chairman.

When running for governor, he proposed caning teenagers who steal, as a deterrent from worse crime. He suggested sending Florida's worst criminals to jails in Mexico.

In this race, he speaks against what he considers wasteful federal spending.

To stop it, Gargan proposes a bill to tie congressional pensions to Social Security benefits. Once House members realize that draining the Social Security trust fund will affect their future finances, he reasons, they might stop approving programs such as a $25-million "retirement home" for chimpanzees.

Gargan called Moore a "nice guy," but suggested that all Moore will do is take votes from him.

Moore said he recognizes the two men share an opposition to the two-party system and the special interests behind it. However, he sees himself as more liberal than Gargan on issues such as health care (he supports a national system) and war with Iraq (he opposes the idea as too costly).

He also suggests that his name has been spread throughout Hernando, Citrus and Pasco counties, which have about 67 percent of the district voters, because of his many letters to local newspapers and his activity with the Spring Hill Civic Association. The organization threw him out as its president last year, days after his election.

He mentioned that he abandoned his 1998 mayor's race, urging numerous independents to join forces. None agreed, but Moore threw what one Washington paper called his "meager support" to another third-party candidate. The Democrat won; Moore received 0.3 percent of the vote.

Another scenario Moore mentioned, though, had Gargan hurting Brown-Waite and himself winning the race with 35 percent of the vote.

Werder, 47, a write-in candidate, is the most marginal of the lesser-known candidates.

He does not have a telephone, lists his mother's number on forms, and generally does not return calls. He campaigns little, and said he has spent only $1.04 on his campaign to buy paint for a sign on his rural Hernando County property that says "impact fees s---."

His first name does not appear on state information. Werder said he tried to register as "x" so anyone making a mark in the write-in box would vote for him, but the state messed up his effort.

Werder has had some brushes with the law, most recently in May, when he was charged with allowing livestock to run at large and then resisting a Hernando County sheriff's deputy without violence. He pleaded no contest.

In 1988, Werder was found guilty of disorderly conduct in Clearwater.

He could not be reached for comment last week.

Werder has said he would like to win the congressional race, but discounted the possibility, especially against his better-financed and better-known opponents.

-- Times researchers Kitty Bennett and Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at (352) 754-6115. Send e-mail to solochek@sptimes.com.

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