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Democrats invited punches on way to drubbing

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By C. T. BOWEN, Pasco Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 7, 2002

Heather Fiorentino gets the last laugh.

After eight negative fliers and countless television advertisements from former standup comedian Craig McCart, Fiorentino returns to the state House District 46 seat with 61 percent of the vote.

McCart attempted to portray Fiorentino as anti-education and anti-school safety. That is a tough assignment when the opponent is a teacher.

Which raises the question, why try? The state Democratic Party infused the late-starting McCart campaign with staff and political advertising that Fiorentino estimated cost $100,000.

Across the county, the state party ignored Pat Burke, who raised less than $16,000 in her underdog race against two-term incumbent Rep. Ken Littlefield, R-Dade City, for House District 61.

Burke collected 17,762 votes, or nearly 39 percent. McCart drew 16,866 votes, or 36 percent.

Insert your own punch line here.

Even if the party enrollment numbers made District 46 an enticing target -- Democrats hold a 700-vote edge over Republicans there -- Fiorentino is well-liked on both sides of the aisle and has said she will vacate the seat in two years. It would have been more prudent to wait until 2004 to go aggressively after the seat.

It wasn't the only Democratic misstep. The party obviously was unable to attract fresh candidates this election season. McCart, Burke, state Senate hopeful Lee Cannon and congressional candidate Chuck Kalogianis all ran before and lost. All got less than 40 percent of the vote Tuesday.

No Pasco Democrat stepped forward to run for the House District 45 seat, won by Republican Dunedin Mayor Tom Anderson, even though the majority of the district is in this county.

Even the brightest Democratic star, U.S. Rep. Karen Thurman of Dunnellon, failed to carry Pasco County and lost to Republican state Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite.

It's an amazing thumping, considering this county favored Vice President Al Gore for president just two years ago.

"Democrats across the state lost 60-40, so I'm not sure if I could have done anything to make a difference," said McCart, who is considering a run again in 2004.

Of course, not all is lost. Democrats hold two County Commission seats -- not counting Ann Hildebrand's -- and Republicans passed on challenging incumbent Steve Simon. Superintendent John Long has never had a contested re-election. Tax Collector Mike Olson's influence reaches beyond Pasco's borders and three School Board members are registered Democrats even though their elections are nonpartisan.

Tuesday's Democratic implosion came after series of high-profile negative advertisements in the race between Brown-Waite and Thurman, in the Cannon-Mike Fasano contest for state Senate District 11 and between McCart and Fiorentino.

Some were at least based on past voting records and public statements. Cannon, though, trumpeted that Fasano lives with his mother in Heritage Lake Estates. It backfired when Fasano portrayed his diabetic mother as too tapped out by prescription drug costs to live on her own.

Let's see, a 44-year-old man lives with his mother in a 55-and-older neighborhood. Don't waste your time with the voters. Quick, call Walt Lucas and attorney Donald Peyton. There's a deed restriction at stake here.

Fiorentino has a better idea. She called Elections Supervisor Kurt Browning Wednesday morning to discuss establishing a nonpartisan citizens panel to police campaign tactics. It would be modeled after a similar committee in Pinellas County.

Fiorentino said her large plurality "sends a loud message that people are tired of negative campaigning. That's what people told me when I went door to door."

Her biggest sales job will be within her own party. When the Times suggested forming a citizens panel in September, Republican Executive Committee Chairman Hugh Townsend, State Committeeman John Renke and activist Bill Bunting all criticized it as unnecessary.

Pardon their partisan view. It's a worthwhile effort and shouldn't be abandoned. Though, frankly, the results from Tuesday probably have given Republicans a feeling of invincibility.

Don't get too comfortable, warned Fasano, who recalled election night 1990 when Renke, poised to become House minority leader, lost the District 46 race to unknown senior citizen Phil Mishkin. Or the 1996 results when Republicans failed to unseat a pair of vulnerable Democratic county commissioners. An intra-party brouhaha followed and eventually led to a shakeup in the local party leadership.

"It just keeps going around," Fasano said Wednesday. "This is typical of the voters. Soon, they'll say, 'You've gone too far' and bring it back."

Let's hope so. For the sake of the two-party system.

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