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'Attitude problem' leads to downfall

That's what both Democratic and Republican observers say allowed a young newcomer to take Democrat Chris Kingsley's commission seat.

By WILL VAN SANT
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 7, 2002


He raised nearly twice the campaign cash as his challenger and outspent him four-fold.

He had visibility, ran a vigorous campaign and was the incumbent.

Democrat Chris Kingsley also had a reputation for arrogance, had angered the area's largest hospital corporation, incurred the private sector's wrath and alienated voters in his home district, say Democratic and Republican political observers.

Those factors, they say, are what allowed 27-year-old political newcomer Robert Schenck, a Republican, to snatch Kingsley's District 4 County Commission seat in Tuesday's elections.

"There was an attitude problem," said Dom Cabriele, chairman of the Hernando County Democratic Party, an organization not involved in Kingsley's campaign. "He lost the business community a long time ago."

"Chris carries himself a bit above everybody else," said Frank Colletti, county Republican Party chairman. "He talks down to people."

Many said it was Kingsley's reputation for being haughty and inflexible that explains why voters turned him out of office while delivering Democrat commission Chairwoman Nancy Robinson her fourth term and sending her Republican opponent, Rose Rocco, packing.

Robinson and Kingsley would often take the same position on an issue, but their political styles differed, observers said.

"There's no doubt that Nancy is a compromiser, and some people say politics is the art of compromise," Colletti said. "Chris has never been able to master that."

Kingsley, 50, admitted that there is a perception that he is aloof, but he said anyone who knew him well would say otherwise.

What some view as arrogance Kingsley characterized as simply taking a firm stand. It was that firmness, he said, that led voters to associate him with volatile issues more than they did Robinson.

"There is really nothing I would do differently," said Kingsley, whose interventionist approach drew ridicule from laissez-faire Republicans, particularly in the final weeks of the campaign. "Schenck decided to go in and cuddle up to the developers and the hospital."

Case study: Both Kingsley and Robinson this year came out supporting Brooksville Regional Hospital's relocation 3 miles west. Their position did not sit well with Oak Hill Hospital, whose administration fears the move will cut into its share of the area health care market.

While Kingsley continued to back the move, Robinson, at a County Commission meeting Oct. 8, publicly cast herself as peacemaker between the feuding hospitals by urging both parties to agree that a pending state ruling on the issue would be decisive.

Records show that in the weeks before election day, HCA Corp., which owns Oak Hill, gave $1,500 to Schenck. During the same period, the Hernando Builders Association, which endorsed Schenck, handed him a $500 check, as did the Hernando County Association of Realtors.

The donations helped bring the total amount Schenck raised to $15,945.

Much of that represents money given by business and development interests, which welcomed Schenck's pro-growth platform over Kingsley's meddling, observers said.

They point to Kingsley's championing of the big-box and landscaping ordinances, which passed, as well as his support for an ordinance meant to control spill-over lighting from businesses, which did not, as some of the outgoing commissioner's more galling actions.

"Republicans came up to me and said, 'We are going after Chris Kingsley. We don't like him,' " Cabriele said. "There was concerted effort . . . to get rid of him."

"Mr. Kingsley is basically the exact opposite of what the Republican Party stands for," said Anna Liisa Covell, public relations chairwoman for the local Republican Party. "He upset a lot of people."

Among the people Kingsley upset were his own District 4 constituents, including Don Hammond.

In recent months, Hammond, 70, and his wife, Anne, 65, helped lead an impassioned fight against proposed construction of affordable housing in their neighborhood.

With Republican candidates at their side -- and scores of residents -- the Hammonds were present Monday when a circuit court judge derailed the project during what was supposed to be a routine bond hearing.

It was the support of Republicans, including Schenck, who attended many of their meetings, that helped them in the fight, Hammond said. From Kingsley, he said, they got nothing.

"There was no action on his part," Hammond said. "We should support people who support us, not people who ignore us."

In the end, Schenck took 50.4 percent of the vote in District 4, and 53.2 percent countywide.

-- Will Van Sant covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to vansant@sptimes.com .

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