© St. Petersburg Times, published October 23, 2002
As chairwoman of Bill McBride 's campaign for governor in Pinellas County, Larri Gerson is a well-organized, determined newcomer -- she's participating in her first campaign.
Meanwhile, Gov. Jeb Bush 's re-election campaign has enlisted Paul Bedinghaus as its Pinellas chairman.
Bedinghaus is a veteran of local political wars who also serves as county Republican chairman and state Republican treasurer.
The contrast between the rookie and the veteran symbolizes the battle for governor in Pinellas County. The Republican Party has long dominated local politics, and its well-tuned engine of volunteers, contributors and organization is mounting a formidable campaign.
In spite of these factors, Pinellas Democrats say they're confident. Even with the Republicans' traditional success in local races and slight edge in party registration numbers, Pinellas often favors Democratic candidates for governor and president. The county's voters have supported the Democratic candidate at the top of the ballot in five out of the last six elections.
Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore won the most votes in Pinellas two years ago, and so did Bill Clinton in 1996 and 1992. Democrat Lawton Chiles won the governor's races of 1990 and 1994 in Pinellas, while Bush won in 1998.
Those mixed results reaffirm Pinellas' reputation as a bellwether county dominated by moderate voters who don't necessarily follow the party line. "It's a great microcosm of the state in many ways," Bush said during a recent visit.
Peter Nehr, who runs the Republican Party's North Pinellas headquarters and is president of the Republican Club of Upper Pinellas, is happy to talk about his party's strength. "I have a core group of 300 volunteers. I have the call list. I have their phone numbers, cell numbers, everything."
Bush volunteers are staffing a dozen phones in both the North Pinellas and South Pinellas Republican offices, calling supporters to get out the vote.
In South Pinellas, the Bush campaign has distributed roughly 5,000 yard signs and "we're looking for another 600-700 that are supposed to come in this week," said Margie Milford, a Bush co-chairwoman who runs the GOP's South Pinellas office.
Pinellas Republicans made a strategic decision early in the campaign to consolidate the Bush campaign and the local Republican organization, so the groups work phones and stuff envelopes from the same headquarters, often with the same volunteers. "When we make phone calls or do precinct walks or put out signs, we're doing it for everyone," Bedinghaus said.
The Pinellas Bush campaign's "co-chairmen" include others with extensive local campaign experience, including Watson Haynes, Sandy Faulkner, Marie Powell, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and Pinellas Sheriff Everett Rice.
On the Democratic side, Gerson is a newcomer. Charlie Gerdes, an attorney and leading McBride fundraiser in Pinellas County, also said this is the first campaign in which he has served as an organizer. But that's not troubling to veteran Democrats who also are lending their support. They say the new blood has helped invigorate the party.
"I've never seen a better (Pinellas County Democratic Executive Committee) than we have right now," said Gabe Cazares, a former Democratic chairman assisting the McBride campaign.
Gerson said the campaign put out more than 3,000 yard signs during the primary, not counting what the teachers union and other unions put up.
"We definitely have a volunteer base of over 700" for the county, Gerson added. She said scores of volunteers are working phone banks, canvassing neighborhoods and doing "business outreach," speaking to workers at different businesses and nonprofit companies about McBride. Pinellas Democrats say they're also benefitting from help from the teachers union, which backs McBride.
"We have a tremendous amount of people who are going to devote their time . . . the unions and the schoolteachers and the volunteers," said Larry Hyman, also a former county Democratic chairman and McBride organizer.
A St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald poll last month showed 54 percent of Pinellas voters favored Bush, compared to 40 percent for Democratic candidate Bill McBride . McBride's staff says its polling showed a far smaller gap.
Only one Republican at the top of the ballot has won in Pinellas County during the past decade: Jeb Bush . He expects a repeat.
"I think I will win in Pinellas because we've worked real hard in the Tampa Bay area . . ."
Asked recently if he believed he was trailing Bush locally, McBride said, "I don't think so, that isn't my perception. I think we have momentum."
A snapshot of voter registration in Pinellas, a pivotal battleground in the race for governor:
-- Republican: 41 percent
-- Democrat: 37 percent
-- No party affiliation: 17 percent
-- Other: 5 percent
-- Total voters: 569,857
-- Source: Florida Division of Elections
Here is a short list of some key leaders in the Pinellas Bush and McBride campaigns:
Paul Bedinghaus, 38, a certified public accountant, is both chairman of the Pinellas Republican Party and chairman of the Pinellas Bush campaign. As party chairman since 1994, he has been heavily involved in dozens of local races. He has been re-elected party chairman three times without opposition. Bedinghaus also serves as treasurer of the state Republican Party.
Rick Baker, 46, the mayor of St. Petersburg, is a co-chairman of the Bush campaign in Pinellas. He was Jeb Bush 's county chairman in 1994, when Bush lost in Pinellas County and statewide. And he was co-chairman in 1998, when Bush won both the county and the governorship. As mayor, Baker said his duties are scaled back compared to the last two campaigns. He also is an attorney and author of a book about St. Petersburg history called Mangroves to Major League, which contains a foreword written by Bush.
Margie Milford, 67, is in charge of the Republican Party's south Pinellas headquarters and also is co-chairwoman of the Bush campaign. A longtime political organizer, she did similar work in the 1998 Jeb Bush campaign, and also worked for the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush and numerous campaigns in Texas before moving here in 1994.
Larri Gerson, 44, is chairman of the McBride steering committee in Pinellas County, a volunteer position. This is her first campaign. Gerson is a government employee and a U.S. Air Force veteran.
Charlie Gerdes, 46, is fundraising chairman for the McBride campaign in Pinellas and also works to speak to groups that don't traditionally vote for Democrats. This is the first time he has helped in the management of a campaign. Gerdes became an attorney in 2000 and previously worked for Raytheon Corp.
Gabe Cazares, 82, is a veteran of Pinellas County politics. A former county Democratic chairman and former Clearwater mayor, Cazares is helping to coordinate efforts to contact senior citizens and other voters. Cazares is retired as a stockbroker and a U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel. He also has been a persistent critic of the Church of Scientology, which has major holdings in Clearwater.