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Political farewell bittersweet

After 27 years in public office, what does the future hold? ''I just don't know yet,'' Karen Thurman says.

By CARRIE JOHNSON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 29, 2002


DUNNELLON -- The retirees lingering at the breakfast counter of the Dinner Bell Restaurant look up from their coffee cups as the middle-aged woman with the blond bob enters on a crisp December morning.

She smiles broadly and greets the elderly men by name, asking about their plans for the holidays. Several rise to hug her and inquire about her family.

This is Rep. Karen Thurman's home base, and these have been her people for almost three decades. She has represented them in all forms of government, from the local City Council to the statehouse in Tallahassee to the U.S. Capitol.

For 27 years she has listened to their concerns, visited their homes, solved their problems and asked for their votes. But all that will change Jan. 7, when Ginny Brown-Waite will be sworn in as the next representative of Florida's 5th Congressional District.

The loss is still bitter to Thurman, 51, a Democrat. She believes -- and many agree -- that it was the politically motivated redrawing of the district boundary lines that handed the victory to her Republican opponent.

It was an ironic twist of fate for a lawmaker who twice won election to higher office with help from newly drawn district lines.

In 2001, the GOP-dominated Legislature removed heavily Democratic Alachua County from the 5th District. It also added parts of GOP strongholds Sumter, Polk and Lake counties, which Brown-Waite had represented as a state senator.

"What are we going to do about this gerrymandering thing?" cries one of the patrons, Ed Camisca, a snowbird from Kalamazoo, Mich.

Thurman smiles politely and rests a hand on Camisca's shoulder. But he won't be deterred.

"I'll move down here permanently next time so I can vote for you," he says forcefully.

But while she hasn't ruled out another run for office, Thurman isn't convinced there will be a next time.

Her daughter, Liberty Lee, recently had a baby, and Thurman said she is enjoying the role of grandmother. It's also a relief not rushing to airports and commuting to Washington every week, she said.

For the first time in years, Thurman has prepared a resume and is shopping for jobs.

"It was really hard," Thurman said, chuckling. "I just have never had to do this. Or I have, but it was much different."

Reclaiming the congressional seat would be difficult. Thurman outspent Brown-Waite 2-1 and was still defeated by 4,420 votes. And in 2004, Brown-Waite would have the power of incumbency on her side.

But Thurman said it has already proved difficult sitting on the sidelines. Although her office officially closed Dec. 3, she still speaks with colleagues in Washington almost every day and keeps up with the latest political news.

So, after 27 years in public office, what does the future hold for Thurman?

"I just don't know yet," she said, sighing.

A humble start

Unlike many of the men and women roaming the halls of Congress, Karen Thurman never aspired to political office. She was a math teacher at Dunnellon Middle School when she had her first brush with government.

It was 1975 and the Dunnellon City Council was threatening to close the public beach on the Withlacoochee River. Thurman's students were upset.

She encouraged them to take their complaints to the next City Council meeting and made arrangements to have them listed on the agenda.

"She was the instigator," said John Semmes, now 34, who was among the seventh-graders who made the trip to City Hall. "She was the one who said, 'Hey, you can do this.' And thanks to her, the beach is still open today."

Following their successful lobbying campaign, the students encouraged Thurman to run for political office. After some consultation with her husband, John, she decided to give it a try.

Thurman said she knocked on every door in Dunnellon, which was then a one-stoplight town, asking for the support of every resident.

Her first political victory was also her narrowest: She won by five votes.

But once on the council, she quickly gained popularity.

"I loved it from the beginning," Thurman said. "It was wonderful getting to solve problems for people. You also learn about some really interesting issues."

She served two terms as Dunnellon's mayor while on the council and was the leader of the Comprehensive Planning Committee, which laid out the long-term blueprints for the Marion County town.

Thurman became deeply involved in water-related issues and was named as a member of the Withlacoochee Water Supply Authority. The Rainbow River was also designated an "Outstanding Florida Waterway" on her watch.

All the while, she continued to teach and raise her young children. An opportunity to leap to state government presented itself in 1982 and proved irresistible to the fledgling politician.

Reapportionment had created a new state Senate seat that would encompass parts of Marion, Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties.

Initially, Thurman's husband, a circuit judge, considered making a run for the new position. But given Karen Thurman's regional experience on the water authority, they ultimately decided she would be a more natural candidate.

She had to win over more than 243,000 voters, most of whom had never heard of her. So she started walking door to door again.

"There were a lot of people at the time who thought that I didn't have a chance," Thurman said.

She contacted the presidents of every civic association and social club she could find to ask permission to speak to their groups. She had a shoestring budget of $35,000 but won some important endorsements and eked out a win.

Once in Tallahassee, Thurman set her sights on the Agricultural Committee, which dealt with many issues vital to her rural district. She became the first woman ever to lead the committee.

She was also named to the Pari-Mutuel Committee, which was important to her constituents in Ocala, a major horse racing hub.

Later, Thurman chaired an even more important group: the Senate subcommittee on congressional reapportionment.

The national scene

In 1991, population shifts prompted the Legislature to redraw the lines of Florida's congressional districts. The plans drew derision from many Republicans, who said the state was carved to protect Democratic incumbents.

Thurman was especially singled out for criticism, and many accused her of gerrymandering a favorable district for herself.

She levied similar criticism against Brown-Waite during 2002. But Thurman is quick to dismiss any comparisons between the redistricting processes in 1991 and 2001.

"We listened to testimony from people and actually took that testimony into account," Thurman said in a recent interview. "We tried to avoid any type of disruption and keep communities of interest together."

The 2001 redistricting turned the 5th District from a Democratic majority into one where 52.5 percent of voters supported President George W. Bush in 2000. It was "political gerrymandering. No one will ever disprove that," Thurman said.

'Year of the Woman'

The critics may have charged Thurman with creating a partisan district for herself, but she won election to Congress in 1992 by only a slim margin.

Thurman received 128,700 votes in the nine-county congressional district. Brooksville Republican Tom Hogan, whom Thurman had previously defeated in a state Senate race, earned 113,489. Independent candidate Cindy Munkittrick was a distant third with 19,318 votes.

So Thurman was ushered off to Washington in what came to be known as "The Year of the Woman," when the number of women in the House of Representatives jumped from 28 to 47.

But it wasn't long before Thurman found herself singled out for criticism from some of the women's groups that supported her.

During the campaign, many women's groups thought she would be an unequivocal supporter of abortion rights. But just months after taking office, Thurman announced her opposition to federal funding of abortion.

In July 1993, Thurman and 10 other female representatives broke ranks with the influential National Women's Political Caucus and voted to uphold a ban on federal funding of Medicaid abortions for poor women, a very important cause for many liberal women's organizations.

The move greatly angered members of the caucus, who offered a resolution of censure against the 11 women at its annual convention that year.

"That could be what her constituency wanted, but our chapter did endorse her, and the next time around we'll re-evaluate our position," Gloria Trylko, who was then the co-president of the Pasco chapter of the National Organization for Women, told the Times in a 1993 interview.

Thurman would later be accused of zigzagging on her abortion position, angering opponents of the procedure in 1994 by joining a group of more than 35 lawmakers in signing a letter urging House leaders to produce a health care reform bill that covered abortion and contraception.

As she continued to sort out her position on federal issues, Thurman developed a reputation as a moderate, a stance that fitted with her district, which tended to vote Republican in other statewide races.

As such, Thurman occasionally drew flak from constituents for some of her more controversial votes.

She supported President Clinton's controversial 1993 tax increase, which was used against her by several critics during subsequent campaigns.

She also supported Clinton when he was threatened with impeachment following his indiscretions with intern Monica Lewinsky, which provoked grumbling among some of her conservative constituents.

Perhaps her biggest brush with controversy came in 1997, when she was accused of relaying a recording of an intercepted cellular telephone call from then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich to a New York Times reporter.

The call was recorded by a North Florida couple, John and Alice Martin, who turned on their tape recorder after hearing Gingrich's voice while listening to a police radio scanner. It was a conversation between the speaker and his top lieutenants, who were devising a plan to handle the fallout of his growing ethics problems.

The Martins delivered the tape to Thurman, saying they thought it might be evidence in the case against Gingrich.

Thurman gave the Martins their tape and directed them to U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, then the ranking Democrat on the ethics committee. Two days later, a partial transcript of the conversation was printed in the New York Times.

Thurman maintained she did not listen to the tape and did not leak it to the press. She was never charged with any criminal wrongdoing but did hire a lawyer to handle her involvement with the case.

Although branded as a liberal by many of her political opponents, who included former drag racing star "Big Daddy" Don Garlits, Thurman was not afraid to break with her fellow Democrats. In 1996, in what she called one of the most important votes of her career, Thurman backed a welfare reform bill that limited recipients to five years' of benefits and cut money for food stamps.

Although it was endorsed by President Clinton, the proposal had been criticized by many members of her party, who called it cruel and punitive. Thurman said she supported the measure because it protected, to an acceptable extent, the benefits for needy children.

But Thurman evidently learned the political game well enough to win appointment in 1996 to the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

Her fellow committee members described Thurman as a forceful politician who would fight for key issues, especially legislation that would make prescription drugs more affordable for seniors and low-income residents.

"She was extremely tenacious," said Rep. Mark Foley, R-West Palm Beach. "She cared about outcomes -- not just politics."

Foley remembered Thurman spearheaded the battle to have Medicaid cover the cost of drugs needed for a successful organ transplant surgery. Some officials were proposing coverage for only three years.

Without those drugs, the chances of a patient rejecting an organ increased dramatically.

"She called that penny wise and pound foolish," Foley said.

Thurman also led the fight for veterans rights. In 1994, she helped rewrite the formula the federal government used to dole out money for veterans facilities -- resulting in as much as $175-million more for Florida.

Serving the people

Inverness resident Charles Wood has been a staunch Republican since he was old enough to cast a ballot. But every election, he breaks with party lines to vote for Thurman.

"She always struck me as a real fighter," said Wood, 63. "I liked that. She was tough when she had to be."

Wood was already a Thurman enthusiast when a 1997 run-in with the federal bureaucracy solidified his support.

Wood's father, also named Charles Wood, was mistakenly declared dead by the Social Security Administration due to a computer mixup.

The elder Wood, then 81, stopped receiving his monthly Social Security payments, and his doctors received notice that Medicare would not pay its portion of Wood's bills.

Father and son tried to solve the problem by themselves but kept running into dead ends.

"They stonewalled us," said the younger Wood in a recent telephone interview. "We went to the Social Security office, and I almost got into a fistfight."

Finally, they called Thurman's office. Within days, the problem was solved.

"When I called Social Security, they told me they were too busy. Karen's staff really got them off the pad," Wood added.

Throughout her tenure in office, Thurman became known for solving constituents' problems such as Wood's. Her willingness to help the people of her district was the cornerstone of her political legacy so far, said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.

"She was superb at constituent services," she said. "Within her district, she will always be remembered as being very, very accessible."

Joe Cino, the head of Citrus County's Democratic Party, called Thurman "a unique people's person. She always was there for anyone who needed her, no matter what their problem was."

Looking ahead

Over a plate of ham and fried eggs at the Dinner Bell, Thurman contemplated her future. She is still weary from the campaign, which grew ugly at times.

She won the counties included in her former district, including Citrus, Hernando and Marion. But it wasn't enough to overcome her losses in the reapportioned areas of Pasco, Sumter, Polk and Lake counties.

"Everywhere they (voters) knew us, they voted for us," Thurman said. "They didn't believe all the negative information that was coming their way."

Even at her election night party, supporters were already encouraging her to make another run in 2004. Others suggested she should aim higher: governor, perhaps, or maybe even the U.S. Senate.

For now, Thurman is staying mum about her prospects of returning to political office. She is attempting to get a job that will allow her to continue some form of public service. She would also like to stay in Florida, or at least commute easily.

Thurman said it was her daughter, Liberty Lee, who offered the most sage insight on her return to the private sector after 27 years in the public spotlight.

"She said, 'If you wake up every morning and you hate it, run again. But if you love your new job, don't do it,' " Thurman said, smiling. "I think that's good advice."

-- Carrie Johnson can be reached at 860-7309 or cjohnson@sptimes.com .

Karen Thurman timeline

1951: Born in Rapid City, S.D., on Jan. 12.

1970: Earns associate's degree from Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville.

1973: Earns bachelor's degree in education from University of Florida.

1975: Elected to Dunnellon City Council.

1982: Elected to state Senate.

1992: Wins narrow victory to the U.S. House of Representatives over Republican Tom Hogan and Independent Cindy Munkittrick.

1993: Supports President Bill Clinton's tax increase, a vote that would be used against her in subsequent campaigns.

1994: In what she called the most difficult vote of her career, supports Clinton's welfare reform bill. Goes on to win a solid -- 57 percent -- victory in her race against former drag racing star "Big Daddy" Don Garlits.

1996: Appointed to the House Ways and Means Committee, the sixth woman ever to be selected for the powerful committee. In the election that year, thrashes Republican Dave Gentry, taking 62 percent of the vote.

1998: Votes against impeaching President Clinton. Later defeats lawyer and Reform party candidate Jack Gargan to retain House seat.

2000: Easily wins election over Gainesville lawyer Pete Enwall.

2002: Loses to Republican challenger Ginny Brown-Waite.

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