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GOP wants county control

Republicans target County Commission Districts 1, 3 and 5 in 2004. ''The party . . . has grown stronger,'' says Frank Colletti of the Republican Executive Committee.

By WILL VAN SANT
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 8, 2002


Hernando County Republicans smell blood in the water.

After a Nov. 5 election characterized by sweeping GOP victories at all levels of government, the local party has set its sights on taking back control of the five-member County Commission in 2004.

"I'm positive that we will," said Frank Colletti, chairman of the county's Republican Executive Committee. "There's no doubt in my mind."

A GOP beachhead was established on the all-Democratic body last month, when voters elected 27-year-old political newcomer Robert Schenck to the commission's District 4 seat. Seats in Districts 1, 3 and 5 are up for grabs in 2004.

Colletti called new Republican clubs, such as those in Timber Pines and the Wellington, as well as an invigorated Hernando County Young Republicans organization, harbingers of victory two years from now.

"The party as an entity has grown stronger," he said.

Although only one Republican candidate has announced her candidacy so far, party officials say there is no shortage of would-be politicos hungrily eyeing the Democrats and planning to step forward.

"Whenever a party gains strength, the number of people who have an interest in climbing aboard grows," Colletti said. "We have some awfully good people waiting in the wings."

In District 1, Anna Liisa Covell, public relations officer for the REC and a member of the county's Planning and Zoning Commission, plans to face off against Democratic incumbent Betty Whitehouse. Covell ran for the District 1 seat in 2000; she lost to Janey Baldwin in the primary.

"Mrs. Whitehouse is a very, very nice lady, but I think she belongs back in the health care industry," Covell said. "She has spent the bulk of the last two years putting taxpayer dollars into her own pet projects."

Whitehouse, who has committed to running in 2004, said the characterization of her as just a health care or elderly issues commissioner was an uninformed one. Transportation and water issues, Whitehouse said, also are important to her.

"I just don't see that I have pushed pet projects," she said. "I don't really feel like I have used taxpayer dollars frivolously."

In District 3, Colletti said it is likely that Bobbi Mills, who served on the commission from 1996 until 2000, would attempt a run against Democratic incumbent Diane Rowden.

Mills, who was defeated by Carey Carlson in the Republican primary election in 2000, did not return calls for this story.

While saying all of the Democratic incumbents are weak, Colletti was particularly optimistic for Republican chances against Rowden, who he said "gives her own party fits."

Rowden, who has vowed to run, said she was unimpressed by talk of a Republican surge in the county derailing her re-election bid. At the level of local politics, she said, it's the person and not the party that makes the difference.

"I have confidence in the people to choose the best person, whether it be me or Bobbi Mills," Rowden said.

The District 5 race is the contest most up in the air at this point. Democratic incumbent Mary Aiken has not decided whether she will run. Though there is considerable speculation on a Republican contender, neither Aiken nor Colletti would name names.

Tom Hogan Sr., a longtime player in Republican politics at the state and local levels, said he was unsure which of the three Democratic incumbents would be the easiest to beat.

But he noted that all are first-term commissioners. And it tends to be more difficult to be re-elected coming off a first term, Hogan said, than off a second or third.

Like Colletti, Hogan said the local party is going through a renaissance with more purpose, commitment and energy than in recent years.

"We are strong again," he said.

-- 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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