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Veteran politician is running scared -- and he should be

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By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 29, 2002

TALLAHASSEE -- One of the greatest mismatches since David took on Goliath is under way in northeast Florida, where 26-year old Democrat Andy Wojcicki is making his first campaign for public office against Jacksonville Republican Jim King, veteran of 10 elections and heir to the Senate presidency.

At least David had a slingshot.

Republicans outnumber Democrats, 47 percent to 34 percent, in the Jacksonville-dominated 8th senatorial district, which also includes parts of Nassau, Flagler, St. Johns and Volusia counties. The Bush-Cheney ticket swept it with nearly 62 percent of the vote. King's campaign contributions total more than $304,000, while Wojcicki has managed to raise merely $7,339. That's less than half of what King has already spent just on billboards.

Yet King is running scared. He's running so hard that he complains it's cutting into the time he'd prefer to be spending on organizing the Senate for the next two years.

He says he's haunted by the example of lobbyist Sam Bell, who would have become House speaker in 1990 if his Volusia County voters hadn't dumped him for an underdog Republican two years earlier.

"I have no idea how he intends to do it," King says, "but I've learned a long time ago from Sam Bell and some of the others that you cannot take any challenger for granted. I'm running this race as if I was eight points behind and he was an 800-pound gorilla."

Actually, Wojcicki is a slim, tousle-haired kid who normally spends his weekdays as an internal auditor for Shands Jacksonville, an affiliate of the University of Florida's hospital, and his weekends taking inner city kids on nature outings as a Sierra Club volunteer.

It's the environment that drew him into his improbable race. Wojcicki, whose father taught fifth-grade science for more than 30 years, says he was astonished when the Legislature voted to make it more difficult for citizens and groups to challenge developers. That was King's bill, which he passed on the last day of the session by amending it onto the legislation authorizing money for restoring the Everglades. Though the measure probably would have passed on its own, the logrolling made it veto-proof.

His first thought, Wojcicki says, was "Who's running against Jim King? I want to campaign for that guy and make a go against him."

Nobody, he was told. So he did.

"When I entered this race, I had no political experience. I was nervous. People have responded extremely well. Right now I'm feeling extremely nervous again because I think we're in a position where we could pull it off," Wojcicki says.

"The difficult part I'm having is making my own people understand that this is a race. The apathy is my worst enemy," says King. "People say it's not a problem, that "You're going to beat him like a drum.' "

King's worst enemy is not apathy but his record on a local issue that Jacksonville takes to heart: billboards. In a 1987 referendum, 57 percent of the voters favored an ordinance to ban any new billboards and force many others to come down or be downsized. They also elected a new mayor on an antibillboard platform.

King, however, helped to fulfill the billboard lobby's ardent wish for legislation, which passed this year, forcing local governments to pay market value for signs that they would otherwise be able to force off the roadsides under a court-approved approach called amortization. With Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, as their chief sponsor, the billboard companies splintered the opposition by conceding exemptions to Jacksonville, Pinellas County and other selected localities.

But there's less to those exemptions than was intended to meet the eye. According to Bill Brinton, a Jacksonville lawyer and beautification advocate who has represented Pinellas against the industry, Jacksonville can no longer strengthen its laws. And what if the billboard lobby slips something through another session to repeal the exemptions?

Brinton is rooting for Wojcicki.

"If he had $1 for every $10 King has, he would win," says Brinton. Already, Wojcicki has "convinced serious doubters he's really going to be someone someday."

It would take a miracle for that day to come this year. Though Wojcicki has a socko campaign video featuring a sequence of billboards, starting with "We Bare All" and closing with King's, he has no money to air it. His campaign relies on friends to circulate it, on word of mouth and on help -- but so far precious little of it -- from the environmental community.

"I'm sure before it's over the Sierra Club will dump a bunch of money. I don't think the Democrats will," says King.

He's wrong about the Sierra Club. Its contribution so far: $200. He's probably right about the Democrats.

David, too, had to face his foe alone. So when Goliath fell, it wasn't just the Philistines who were embarrassed. Though it defies belief that King could fall, Wojcicki would need only a respectable loss -- say a total approaching 40 percent -- for a lot of politicians and lobbyists to be embarrassed. No wonder King is running scared.

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