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Handling pressure crucial in a race where mud, jeers fly

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By GREG HAMILTON, Citrus Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 20, 2002

The forecast for Citrus County this week shows temperatures dropping. Everywhere, that is, except for the County Commission race between incumbent Jim Fowler and Scott Adams.

On Wednesday night, a frustrated Fowler raised the heat in the race by dredging up Adams' criminal record at a candidates' forum in Crystal Oaks. The timing of his personal attack was odd, because he supposedly was answering a question about the Suncoast Parkway.

If Fowler was hoping to get a rise from the audience, it worked, but not the way he wanted. The reaction was a hail of boos and jeers aimed not at Adams for having an unsavory past but at Fowler for, as one audience member said, "slinging mud."

Adams' past is certainly no secret. Two years ago, when Adams ran for the commission seat now held by Josh Wooten, his arrest record became public knowledge. He explained then, as he did once more Wednesday night, that his 1987 DUI conviction and 1993 no contest pleas to battery on a police officer, reckless driving and possession of marijuana were simply the judgment errors of a misguided youth.

Ah, yes, the famous youthful indiscretion defense, a favorite of politicians from presidents on down. Like so many others, Adams says he has learned from his mistakes and has matured.

That argument, however, doesn't explain his more recent run-ins with the law, such as the day he spent in jail in January 2001 on a contempt of court charge for running a business without a county permit.

But give Adams credit, at least, for being upfront about his troubles. That's a refreshing contrast to other candidates who only acknowledge their faults when confronted by newspaper reporters.

Clearly, voters should be aware of Adams' past. If they choose to factor that into their decision on Nov. 5, so be it.

But voters also should wonder why Fowler felt the need to bring up character issues in the campaign at this time and whether it was fair to do so. After all, it's not as if anyone who has been paying even scant attention to county politics in recent years doesn't already know that Adams is not squeaky-clean.

The attack speaks to the pressure Fowler is feeling. This is all uncharted territory for a two-term incumbent used to winning by wide margins, one who may still be sore from the pounding inflicted by two political novices in the September GOP primary.

Fowler has been appearing at candidates' forums around the county this week, and the reactions reportedly have been lukewarm at best. It's one thing for a person with his pride to be challenged like this; it's quite another when the challenger is a loud and boisterous, unrefined country boy like Adams.

His mood was hardly brightened by the audience's jeering reaction to his comments and by Adams' response, where he all but called Fowler a liar and a thief. Adams' remarks may have been out of line, but Fowler opened that door, so he has to accept whatever comes back through it.

As for Adams' challenge to county employees, including commissioners, to take drug tests, with Adams being the first to take one, let's leave that notion aside for another day.

The shame of it all is that this race is too important for the voters to be distracted by character assassinations based on events from a decade ago. The information is neither new nor particularly relevant to the issues the County Commission will face in the coming years.

The days leading to the Nov. 5 election are dwindling to a precious few. As the leaves fall, the pressure in the race is rising. How the candidates handle that pressure will be more revealing than any skeletons they drag from each other's closets.

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