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Character focus gives Fowler edge

Republican Commissioner Jim Fowler trounces nonparty challenger Scott Adams in a contest of disparate budgets, finger-pointing and some slung mud.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 7, 2002

INVERNESS -- It seems the County Commission District 4 race came down to two issues:

"Character and judgment," said Jim Fowler, a Republican who handily won his third commission term Tuesday with 58.56 percent of the vote.

"A hundred thousand dollars and the dirtiest campaign I've ever seen in my entire life," said nonparty challenger Scott Adams, who said he lost the race because he lacked the time and money to respond to Fowler's negative ads.

Okay, makethat four issues.

Although Fowler and Adams discussed everything on the campaign trail from water quality and taxes to mandatory garbage collection, character became a decisive factor in this highly watched commission race.

Fowler came under fire early in the campaign for his vote to approve the Halls River Retreat condominium. Critics said he didn't listen to residents who opposed the controversial time share complex and other developments.

As hefty campaign contributions rolled in from builders and businessmen, a perception grew -- inaccurately, Fowler says -- that the commissioner was beholden to the development community.

"There are some who would believe I'd sacrifice the environment for property rights, which I deeply believe in, but I would never do that," Fowler said Tuesday evening.

Having amassed an unprecedented $94,960 campaign war chest -- half of which he had spent in the tight Republican primary -- Fowler put his money toward mailings to combat the character issue. One brochure showed a smiling Fowler, "Willing to Listen, Ready to Work."

Two more slick mailers, which arrived in voters' mailboxes the week before the election, hammered on Adams' colorful past.

"Scott Adams wants to be a Citrus County Commissioner because . . . He spends so much time at the Courthouse already," reads one mailer, which lists Adams' decade-old arrests and more recent civil court battles.

Adding to Adams' image problems, Sheriff Jeff Dawsy called a press conference last week to brand Adams "delusional" and a "liar" for telling people the Sheriff's Office is under investigation. (Dawsy and other officials say it's not.)

And then there was the e-mail Commissioner Josh Wooten sent fellow Democrats, urging them to support Fowler over Adams.

"Please think long and hard before you cast your ballot in this race, as I'm the one who has to sit there with the winner," Wooten wrote. "Who would you want to sit next to if you were making decisions affecting the safety, health and welfare of one hundred and twenty thousand citizens?"

Adams said the cumulative effect of those attacks was too much, especially coming late in the campaign for a low-budget candidate. Of Adams' $13,922 campaign fund, $9,190 came out of his own pocket.

"What they did after (Fowler's) phone surveys showed they were behind, they came out with a plan of attack that you couldn't recover from," Adams said. "You've got a sheriff, you've got a commissioner writing e-mails, you've got mailers bombarding you like B-52s.

"I'm just proud there's 42 percent of the people that's been following everything that's happening," Adams added, alluding to the voters who landed in his column Tuesday.

Adams won four precincts -- two in Homosassa and one apiece in Chassahowitzka and Inverness -- and picked up votes elsewhere from residents who rejected Fowler's negative ads.

"I think Adams had a raw deal," said Floral City resident Patricia Holmes. "I don't believe in dragging up dirt like that."

Others said Adams' past was all they needed to know.

"He didn't seem like somebody that should even be running, let alone win," said David Talarico, a Floral City voter.

Even with the election behind him, Fowler said Tuesday night he has his own image problem to fix.

"I think over the past year a perception has been created that I'm not a good listener and that I'm arrogant," Fowler said. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

Fowler said he will try to project a more approachable image.

-- Bridget Hall Grumet can be reached at 860-7303 or .

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