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Negativity takes stage in tight race

Though candidates vying for the 5th Congressional District seat pledged to stick to the issues, TV ads and fliers show their camps succumbing to a trend toward attacks.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 3, 2002


To believe the advertising, the major-party candidates for Florida's 5th Congressional District seat love criminals and hate senior citizens.

One flier mailed throughout the district shows a sad-faced older woman who, the text says, depends on Social Security. "But politicians like (incumbent U.S. Rep.) Karen Thurman want to use her retirement money for more government spending," it says.

Another that flooded mailboxes shows a scared elderly couple beneath the blood-red words, "Murderers, Rapists, Child Molesters." Inside, the message says state Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite thinks bringing these and "other violent criminals to Florida from other states makes sense. Law enforcement disagrees."

Many of the campaign television ads, radio spots and phone calls are equally negative and misleading.

Democrat Thurman and Republican Brown-Waite -- both powerful, issues-oriented veteran lawmakers -- have strenuously defended themselves as they try to prove their worthiness to voters.

On Tuesday, voters will have to sort through the mess and make a decision. No-party candidates Jack Gargan and Brian Moore, who blame the headliners for all that ails the state and nation, further complicate the choice.

The national Republican and Democratic parties have targeted District 5 -- redrawn by the Legislature this year to favor Brown-Waite -- as a must-win seat in their battle to control the 108th Congress. The outcome, therefore, could affect federal policies for the next two years.

Issues are reduced to weapons in attacks

At the outset, the candidates said they wanted to keep debate focused on their assets and the "issues that matter to voters," particularly Social Security, Medicare, veterans benefits and prescription drug costs.

The issues still are out there, but more often than not the candidates use them to club one another. Television ads, mailed fliers and recorded campaign calls, most nasty, have flooded the district, which comprises all or parts of eight counties, including all of Hernando and Citrus and the central and eastern portions of Pasco.

It is expected that the campaigns and their backers will spend more than $3-million. For Oct. 15 through Nov. 5, Brown-Waite spent $261,625 for 363 30-second television ads, and Thurman $306,110 for 565 30-second spots in the Tampa market.

With control of Congress on the line and the race too close to call, observers said, it's not surprising that the campaign has gone this direction.

If an ad has even a grain of truth, it might influence undecided voters, University of Central Florida political scientist Aubrey Jewett said. It's like the nuclear arms race, Jewett said: "As soon as one person does it, the other jumps right in."

Moore suggested that the nastiness might prompt voters to consider the alternative candidates.

Maybe voters will be so disgusted that they will stay home, leaving the election to the most dedicated partisans, University of South Florida political scientist Darryl Paulson said.

"The surprising thing is, most people think well of both of the candidates and find it kind of odd to see these candidates run this kind of campaign," Paulson said. "Whoever prevails probably is going to come out a little muddied, bloodied or tarnished."

Race's 'tough ladies' hold tight to support

Many, though not all, constituents and colleagues hold Brown-Waite and Thurman in high regard for their attentiveness, helpfulness and effectiveness.

Moore and Gargan, who have never been elected, have not had the opportunity for such reviews.

State Rep. Nancy Argenziano, a Dunnellon Republican who is running for the state Senate, said many residents of the 5th District like Thurman, especially because she and her staff members quickly respond to calls for assistance. Brown-Waite often has helped people outside her Senate district, Argenziano added, and people have gone to her because of her skill in handling legislation.

"They're both tough ladies, and I think they both do what they believe is the right thing to do," Argenziano said.

State Sen. Rod Smith, a Gainesville Democrat, had similar praise for each. Smith, a former state attorney in Alachua County, called Thurman an "outstanding person" and said she had the most effective constituent services he had seen. He is backing her re-election bid.

"Ginny Brown-Waite is a go-getter and a doer," said Smith, who served with Brown-Waite on three committees last year. "She's a consensus builder. She conciliates differences well."

Praised for strong stance, then attacked on ethics

Many people interviewed by the Times mentioned Brown-Waite's willingness to cross party leaders. They cited her opposition to an aquifer storage and retention program, her support of an unpopular sales tax reform measure and her backing of former Gov. Lawton Chiles' effort to sue tobacco companies.

She also has willingly jumped into frays for residents. Cheryl Carter of Spring Hill lauded Brown-Waite for supporting two subdivisions' fight against state-issued bonds for affordable housing complexes.

"She has been absolutely wonderful, taking precious time out of her campaigning to meet with us," Carter said. "That side of the story should get out, because she's the only one."

John McKay, outgoing Florida Senate president, said he selected Brown-Waite as his second-in-command because of her ability to steer controversial, detailed issues through the legislative maze. He put Brown-Waite in charge of such matters as nursing home reform and post-Sept. 11 security laws.

"She would get her teeth into issues and would be dogged in her pursuit of finding the answer to the problem," McKay said. "She was not beholden to any special interests, which frequently angered some of them that thought they should be kowtowed to."

Indeed, not everyone is a backer.

Brown-Waite is drawing fire because her husband was stopped by sheriff's deputies and accused of stealing and vandalizing Thurman's campaign signs.

Former Hernando County Sheriff Tom Mylander, a Republican, has questioned Brown-Waite's ethics, stating that she pressured him and others to give their business to her husband's vending company. Several organizations, most vocally the Florida Police Benevolent Association, have assailed some of her past votes and actions.

The candidate has shaken off the attacks as politically motivated and denied the ethics accusations. She pledges to be a leader in the U.S. House and not an "obstructionist" or "party loyalist," as she labels Thurman. At the same time, Brown-Waite promises to be a "partner" to President Bush, who has backed her candidacy.

Brown-Waite told a group of senior citizens in Citrus County that she would tackle any topic and promised to be a workhorse rather than a show horse. She has criticized Thurman for not sponsoring many bills or becoming a nationally recognized spokeswoman for any issue.

Groups endorsing Brown-Waite include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Fraternal Order of Police and the Seniors Coalition.

A 'key player' in Congress, but not without enemies

University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus warned against using national face time as a measure of effectiveness in Congress.

"The high visibility goes to speaker of the House, president of the Senate and the chief party spokespeople," MacManus said. "There are very few members of Congress who get high visibility."

Thurman's seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee is a good signal that she has some sway, she said. But the committee's business is not "sexy," MacManus added, and it does not generate high-profile news.

U.S. Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., laughed at the notion that ability is tied to talk show appearances.

"I'd hate to think that Larry King Live is a benchmark of whether you're an effective legislator," said Pomeroy, who also sits on Ways and Means.

He said Thurman, who has held the 5th District seat since 1992, was a recognized leader on agriculture trade, Social Security and Medicare. She has ably amended legislation in committee to protect pensions and keep Social Security information private, Pomeroy said, adding that a lot of unsung work occurs before a bill hits the floor.

"(Thurman) is one of the key players on the Ways and Means Committee," said U.S. Rep. Ben Cardin, D-Md. "There is hardly a health care bill that goes through our committee that doesn't have Karen Thurman's fingerprints on it. . . . She has credibility on both sides of the aisle."

Brown-Waite would not be able to walk in and replace Thurman on the committee, Pomeroy said, because competition for seats is fierce.

U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., also on Ways and Means, has endorsed Brown-Waite's candidacy. He, too, credited Thurman as a tenacious lawmaker who focuses on health care and agriculture issues.

"It does pain me to be opposing Karen, because I do have a lot of respect for her," Foley said.

Many residents also praise Thurman.

"My dad was able to get some help with some veterans issues. He used her office," said Steve Baughn of Inglis. At the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post, he said, "Everybody loves this lady because she is a strong supporter of veterans."

Some groups, however, have blistered Thurman's record. The 60 Plus Association, funded by drug companies, has attacked her votes supporting the reimportation of drugs from other countries, where they are sold more cheaply. Americans for Job Security, formed by the American Insurance Association, has called Thurman soft on crime and anti-senior citizen.

Thurman has blasted these attacks as partisan and misleading. She tells voters she went to Congress with their message to stop deficit spending and protect seniors' benefits.

"I took that to heart," she said, offering examples of legislation she said ended deficit spending and extended the life of Social Security. "I took some tough votes. . . . I am proud to have done it."

Groups endorsing Thurman include the National Rifle Association, the Sierra Club of Florida and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

Crowded race puts attention in short supply

Gargan and Moore, meanwhile, struggle to gain attention with little money and few major endorsements. Gargan recently apologized to voters for missing any forum to which he had not been invited.

Each insists that he has a viable candidacy and deserves equal attention, though many analysts and debate planners have dismissed their chances. At best, they might peel a small percentage of the vote and influence the outcome, said Amy Walter of the Washington-based Cook Political Report.

Gargan of Cedar Key notes that he won 34 percent of the vote as a Reform Party candidate challenging Thurman in 1998 and 28 percent of the vote against Lawton Chiles in the 1994 Democratic gubernatorial primary. Some watchers disregarded those numbers because Gargan was the only opposition in each race.

Gargan sees the numbers as the seeds of success. He also touts his endorsement by Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura.

"I have got to motivate the independents," he said. "They are so cynical that they don't think their vote counts. I have got to impress on them that this is their last chance."

He proudly points to past successes as a financial consultant. The founder of an early 1990s grass roots anti-incumbent drive, who also helped bring Ross Perot into national politics, Gargan often calls himself the father of term limits.

Gargan also was chairman of the national Reform Party in late 1999 and early 2000. He was forced out amid a battle over whether Pat Buchanan would gain the party's nomination for president. He called the situation "political."

Moore of Spring Hill has run unsuccessfully for office several times. He gained about 20 percent of the vote in a run for City Council in Washington and never more than 2.6 percent in three tries for mayor.

In 1998, he dropped out of the mayor's race, offering what the Washington Times termed "meager support" to another hopeful.

Moore rejects any notion that he is a gadfly and insists that he simply wants to serve. He said he led an effort to stop a $365-million trade center from being built in his Washington neighborhood and was among the early advocates of a federal control board to take over the city's bankrupt government.

Since coming to Florida, he has won a position on the state Reform Party leadership team. That post, however, led to his ouster as president of the Spring Hill Civic Association before he ever took office. He then joined the Hernando County Good Government League to lead its push for charter government.

Before completing the charter government drive, Moore decided to run for Congress. He has focused on the need to change the system instead of talking about issues. Long a political activist, Moore said, he's as viable a choice as the other candidates.

"I'm not saying I'm better than them," he said. "But if you want to use credentials to compare, I'm saying I'm on par with them."

David Werder of Spring Hill is a write-in candidate for the seat.

-- Staff writer Candace Rondeaux contributed to this report. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at (352) 754-6115. Send e-mail to solochek@sptimes.com .

THE CANDIDATES

Virginia "Ginny" Brown-Waite

PERSONAL: Born Oct. 5, 1943, in Albany, N.Y., she moved to Florida in 1987. Once divorced, Brown-Waite is married to Harvey Waite and has three adult children. Brown-Waite lives near Brooksville.

EDUCATION: Master's degree, public administration, Russell Sage College in Troy, N.Y.

POLITICAL: Elected to the state Senate in 1992, Brown-Waite was Senate president pro-tem the last two years. Before joining the Senate, Brown-Waite was a Hernando County commissioner and served on the Hernando County Planning and Zoning Commission. She was a legislative director in the New York State Senate before moving to Florida.

PROFESSIONAL: A consultant, Brown-Waite has taught courses at Springfield (Mass.) College's Tampa branch. She worked as a lobbyist for the Southwest Florida Water Management District for a year.

WEB SITE: www.brown-waitecongress.com

* * *

Jack Gargan

PERSONAL: Born Oct. 20, 1930, in Philadelphia, he moved to Florida in 1957. He is divorced and has four adult children. Gargan lives in Cedar Key.

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree, business administration, Birmingham-Southern College (Ala.). Attended Stetson Law School.

fPOLITICAL: Formed Throw the Hypocritical Rascals Out, a national anti-incumbent movement, in 1990. Helped draft Ross Perot to run for president in 1992. Challenged incumbent Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles in the 1994 Democratic primary and ran as a Reform Party candidate against U.S. Rep. Karen Thurman in 1998. Briefly served as national Reform Party chairman in 1999-2000.

PROFESSIONAL: Retired financial planner. Served in the Army and Navy.

WEB SITE: www.jackgargan.com

* * *

Brian Moore

PERSONAL: Born June 8, 1943, in Oakland, Calif., Moore moved to Florida two years ago. He is single and lives in Spring Hill.

EDUCATION: Master's degree, public administration, Arizona State University.

POLITICAL: Elected vice chairman of the Reform Party of Florida in 2001. Because he held that political party office, the Spring Hill Civic Association voided his election as its president in early 2002. Vice president of the Hernando County Good Government League, a small watchdog organization. Ran three times unsuccessfully for Washington mayor.

PROFESSIONAL: A former health care executive, Moore currently runs his own executive recruitment firm, specializing in health fields.

WEB SITE: www.Moore-for-Congress.com

* * *

Karen Thurman

PERSONAL: Born Jan. 12, 1951, in Rapid City, S.D., she moved to Florida in 1965. Married to John Thurman since 1971. She has two adult daughters. Thurman lives in Dunnellon.

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree, education, University of Florida.

POLITICAL: Democrat. First elected to the 5th Congressional District seat in 1992, Thurman serves on the House Ways and Means Committee. Before entering Congress, Thurman was a state senator for 10 years and a Dunnellon City Council member for seven years before that.

PROFESSIONAL: Taught middle school math in Marion County from 1973 to 1982.

WEB SITE: www.karencares.orgTHE ISSUES

Prescription drugs/Medicare

BROWN-WAITE: Says she will work with Republicans and Democrats to pass a prescription drug benefit. Says the first priority on prescription drugs is to make progress -- providing seniors with an immediate, affordable and voluntary benefit.

GARGAN: Calls it "must legislation."

MOORE: Says Medicare should be incorporated into a universal health plan for all Americans. The benefits would include full prescription drug coverage and health services, administered locally out of government control.

THURMAN: Voted for Democratic legislation to guarantee a prescription drug benefit through Medicare for all seniors. Fought to make generics more available and to force drug companies to charge no more for medicine in the United States than they charge in Canada and other nations.

* * *

Social Security

BROWN-WAITE: Opposes privatization but adds that the status quo -- with its trust fund investment yield of less than 1 percent -- is insufficient. Calls for an "open, honest, bipartisan debate" to explore new ways to protect and preserve Social Security.

GARGAN: Proposes a bill to link Social Security with congressional pensions: "We lose ours; you lose yours. Reduce ours; reduce yours. Postpone ours; postpone yours." Acknowledges this is not a solution, but suggests such a move will get Congress moving toward a solution.

MOORE: Calls for a phase-out of the pay-as-you-go system and the creation of a new private investment option. Says Congress should maintain a safety net and minimum pension, require new entrants to join the system, forbid the use of FICA tax revenue for discretionary spending, and not include Social Security surpluses in the federal budget.

THURMAN: Opposes privatization. Opposes cuts in benefits and raising the retirement age. Pledges to protect Social Security and fight efforts to raid the Social Security trust fund.

* * *

Veterans benefits

BROWN-WAITE: Says veterans should not have to wait up to 18 months for services. Pledges to fight to bring more money back to Florida and provide innovative solutions to improve services, such as health care vouchers that would allow veterans to see doctors of their choice.

GARGAN: "A promise is a promise is a promise," Gargan says of veterans benefits.

MOORE: Supports including veterans health benefits in a universal health system.

THURMAN: Has supported Tricare for Life, a health care program for military retirees; prescription coverage for military retirees; and helped bring new veterans medical centers to the area. Pledges continued support of veterans issues.

* * *

War on terrorism/Iraq

BROWN-WAITE: "Politics has no place in national defense decisionmaking. The United States is dedicated to winning the war against terrorism -- the common enemy of the civilized world -- and to ceasing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Our nation must never become complacent, and our foreign policy must be based on a coherent strategic framework."

GARGAN: Supports the war on terrorism, but against Iraq only if the president reveals to the nation why the United States is in clear and present danger, and then only as a last resort.

MOORE: Supports the war against terrorism. Opposes war with Iraq without evidence of a threat to national security. Opposes Congress' giving full authority to the president for pre-emptive strikes.

THURMAN: Supports the war on terrorism. Voted to authorize force against Iraq after Democrats won concessions to ensure it would not divert resources from the war on terrorism and would make sure war in Iraq is a last resort.

* * *

Corporate responsibility

BROWN-WAITE: Says corrupt corporate executives need to be put in jail and their assets repossessed and sold to compensate employee losses. Calls for bringing "Main Street values" to Wall Street firms.

GARGAN: Says executives found guilty of corruption should be thrown in jail and that the federal government should start enforcing laws on the books aimed at preventing corruption.

MOORE: Would hold corporate raiders accountable for violations of law and abusing rights of workers and hold Congress accountable for establishing policies that encouraged corporate wrongdoing. Calls for investigation and indictment of those responsible in Congress.

THURMAN: Voted in 1995 to give shareholders the right to sue irresponsible corporations. Was one of 22 voting to maintain funding to fight corporate crime.

* * *

Taxing/spending policy

BROWN-WAITE: Believes that reducing taxes is the best way to bolster the economy. Says providing citizens with more dollars in their pockets "to spend and save as they see fit" is the sound economic policy Americans need and deserve.

GARGAN: Calls for a constitutional amendment to prohibit deficit spending except in a "real" national emergency. Would limit spending solely for projects vital to the national welfare and eliminate pork barrel projects. Wants to start paring down government at all levels.

MOORE: Proposes creation of a simplified tax system across the board. Says government needs to operate with a balanced budget and return all surpluses to pay down the national debt. Supports return of American companies to U.S. soil to balance international trade, improve production capacity at home and create better jobs for Americans.

THURMAN: Supported the 1993 act that saved Medicare and extended Social Security. Voted for more than a trillion dollars in targeted tax cuts without increasing the deficit.

* * *

Campaign finance reform

BROWN-WAITE: Says when candidates rely on millions of dollars in special interest support, the system needs to be fixed. Wants to see how the recently passed campaign finance law works.

GARGAN: Would limit contributions to individuals living in the congressional district, limit campaign time and provide free air time for all qualified candidates.

MOORE: Would eliminate political action committees, soft money and term limits, and provide for publicly funded election campaigns. Would require media to provide equal access for all qualified candidates and reform Federal Elections Commission.

THURMAN: Supports "meaningful campaign finance reform;" voted for the McCain-Feingold-Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill.

* * *

Abortion

BROWN-WAITE: "This is an issue I struggle with as a legislator and an individual. We must look at each proposal with exceptional scrutiny and care. I disagree with my opponent's support of late-term abortion. I would support a ban on this unnecessary and gruesome procedure."

GARGAN: Says abortion is a "very private decision" for a woman, her physician and her spiritual adviser. Personally opposes abortion.

MOORE: Supports the right of a woman to choose until fetus can live outside the womb. Personally opposes abortion.

THURMAN: "I am prochoice. I only support public funding of abortions in cases of rape, incest or to protect the health of the mother."

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