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    Assured 2 in bid for open seat

    Dennis Jones has raised $311,945. Joanna Kennedy, $40,173. Both believe they will win the newly vacated spot.

    By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published October 7, 2002


    How confident is Dennis Jones that he can beat Joanna Kennedy in his campaign for a seat in the Florida Senate?

    So confident that one question from a reporter is all it takes to prompt this former Republican House member to hand over his "campaign cookbook." It's a folder filled with easy recipes for whipping up campaign cash -- sample fundraising invitations, a pre-addressed donation envelope, a Web site for those who prefer to contribute online.

    No worries that this intelligence might fall into his opponent's hands. "With 36 days left, nobody's going to steal it," Jones said last week.

    Or catch up with him financially. Jones has scheduled regular Thursday-evening fundraisers for months. According to the latest reports, he has raised $311,945, compared to Kennedy's $40,173. That's more than a 7-to-1 advantage.

    And, Jones adds nonchalantly, he could easily schedule two campaign fundraisers per week instead of one, "but I'd be over budget."

    Of course, any political observer can cite cases of underdogs who won. So how confident is Kennedy, a Democrat and city commissioner from Indian Rocks Beach?

    "Anywhere I go they come up to me and say "You're going to win' ... I think I'm going to win. It's not about the money this time," she said.

    The two are running in Senate District 13, which includes much of western Pinellas County, including parts of St. Petersburg, Seminole, Largo, Clearwater, Dunedin and the beach communities. About 43.7 percent of the voters are Republicans, 35 percent Democrats, and 21.2 percent independent or members of smaller political parties.

    Senate District 13 is an open seat because term limits prevent the incumbent Republican, Don Sullivan, from seeking re-election.

    But with a 22-year record in the Florida House and his bulging war chest, Jones is campaigning like an incumbent, running on his experience.

    And while Kennedy is an elected official herself, she fits naturally into the role of challenger. She looks over Jones' record and says, "If this is what you did with your experience, I'm horrified."

    As in the governor's race, education has become a key issue. Kennedy and Jones say they are working hard to improve the lot of teachers and both say they oppose vouchers. But that doesn't mean they agree.

    "I'm sick of him talking like the king of education. I really am sick of it, because it's not true," Kennedy said.

    Kennedy faults Jones for saying he opposes vouchers, which use state tax money to send certain children to private schools, including religious schools. If he opposes vouchers so strongly, why did he vote for them in the House, Kennedy asks.

    Jones acknowledged that he voted for voucher bills while he was speaker pro tempore in the House, which gave him a responsibility to vote along with the House Republican leadership.

    "My job was to advance the speaker's initiatives," he said, so "I had to bite the bullet and support vouchers" on several votes.

    Kennedy says this shows that for Jones, "It was more important to vote with your friends than to vote for the citizens." She said she opposes vouchers because "it takes money away from the public schools, and I'm totally against that."

    Says Jones: "Did I have a change of heart? Yeah, you could say I had a change of position."

    Kennedy held a news conference earlier this year pledging to make Florida teacher salaries among the 10 highest in the nation. She said Florida could pay the $426-million cost by eliminating certain sales tax exemptions and possibly by greater use of generic drugs for people who receive Medicaid.

    She has other ideas too, such as establishing a privately financed trust fund to help schools with incidental expenses.

    She would push for a study commission to find a way to make prescription drugs more affordable. To improve Florida's foster care system, she says the state should push for ways to help families stay together.

    When Jones talks about education, he pledges to look for a way to let Florida school systems hire teachers from other states without having those teachers lose their retirement benefits. That would cost Florida money, but it would help Florida attract more teachers. He said he also would like to investigate whether part-time teachers could receive health benefits. That would bring some good, certified teachers back into the classroom, he said.

    In general, he said it was a "no-brainer," that Florida is going to have to pay teachers more. Jones favors reviewing sales tax exemptions also.

    Although they clash on issues, Kennedy and Jones share some things. Both are business owners and both have been elected officials.

    Jones, 61, is a chiropractor and with his son owns Community Care Medical Center in St. Petersburg. It houses their own practice plus physical therapists and other medical professionals.

    During two decades in the state House, Jones was known not as an ideological warrior, but as someone who focused on local projects. He is proud of obtaining ongoing financing for beach renourishment and for a variety of other projects, ranging from the Seminole Library to the Pinellas Trail.

    Although politicians sometimes call these projects "turkeys," Jones takes pride in them.

    "I like turkeys, myself. I thought they were good for the community," he said.

    Kennedy, 42, owns the Cookie Cutter hair salon in Indian Rocks Beach. As a two-term city commissioner there, Kennedy says she worked hard to represent the citizens of Indian Rocks Beach, and also has been active in the Florida League of Cities. Her work has won her endorsements from several elected officials of the Pinellas beach communities, including some Republicans.

    She said she's skilled at listening to residents and finding solutions, and that she has the energy to become an excellent state representative.

    "I'm running because I'm a parent, because I'm a daughter, because I'm a self-employed person and because I believe I genuinely care about the people in this county," she said.

    "I believe this is my true calling. I've known it ever since I was a little girl."

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