Four Democrats take on the odds for Brown-Waite's seat
Analysts say this race is all but a shoo-in for Republican Ginny Brown-Waite, but her challengers say their efforts are worth it to oust "another Bush rubber stamp."
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Published August 22, 2004
Two years ago, Florida's 5th Congressional District captured national attention as one of just a handful of competitive races for the U.S. House of Representatives.
Republican Ginny Brown-Waite, then a state senator, pulled off the rare feat of ousting the incumbent, Karen Thurman - but just barely. Before she took the oath of office, political analysts already had labeled her "vulnerable" for 2004.
After assessing the field of Democrats vying for the Aug. 31 primary nomination, those same observers have changed their tune. The district is absent from the competitive race lists of the Cook Political Report and the Rothenberg Political Report.
Congressional Quarterly, owned by Times Publishing Co., parent company of the St. Petersburg Times, rates the race as "Republican favored," just a step shy of "safe."
"It was a race to watch if Karen Thurman ran," said Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report.
With Brian Moore of Spring Hill, Richard Penberthy of Wesley Chapel, John Russell of Dade City and Robert Whittel, who lives near Weeki Wachee, in the running, Rothenberg said, "it's absolutely not on the list of races to watch."
"The Democrats in Washington aren't talking about it," he continued. "It's off the radar screen."
Party leaders would not comment about the candidates before the primary. But the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee stopped sending news releases attacking Brown-Waite nearly a year ago, and insiders have said privately that they are focusing resources elsewhere.
The hopefuls have said they are running because the country needs to change. And they contend that Brown-Waite is too closely aligned with the Bush administration and House Republican leaders to make that happen.
Moore is the candidate with the most political experience among the four, having run several failed election campaigns.
He received 2.4 percent of the vote as an independent for this same seat two years ago. Moore lost three bids for mayor of Washington, D.C., and another to serve on the D.C. City Council.
He briefly won the presidency of the Spring Hill Civic Association, only to be stripped of the position because he held an office with the Reform Party of Florida, against civic association rules. Now, Moore heads a small watchdog group called the Hernando County Good Government League. He also regularly leads local antiwar protests.
He wants to serve in Congress as a Democrat, even though some party faithful blast him for nabbing votes in 2002 that might have kept Thurman in office.
Moore explained that his switch to the Democratic Party, a party he blasted just two years ago, had one foot in philosophy and the other in reality.
Most of the positions he took in 2002, and continues to support, were more Democratic than anything else, he said, listing such views as his ardent opposition to the war in Iraq and his call for a universal single-payer health care system.
"The practical factor is, it's difficult to win as an independent third-party candidate," Moore said, noting the implosion of the Reform Party. "That prompted me to return to the Democratic Party."
He rejected the notion that he was Thurman's spoiler, attributing her loss to several factors, not the least of which was her lackluster campaign. Redistricting also put Thurman at a disadvantage, Moore said.
If anything, he said, he considers himself a progressive Democrat who supported such notables as Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern.
Without much money to fund his campaign, Moore depends on free media publicity, the Internet, forums and door knocking to get his message out, which he feels distinguishes him from his competitors.
On the Iraq war, for instance, Moore is the only candidate calling for a quick transfer of military authority to the United Nations.
"We are the aggressor," he argues. "The sooner we get out of there, we can bring peace to the country, protect our soldiers from harm's way and (stop) the godawful economic burden."
He also presses for repeal of the Patriot Act, while the others support modifications.
Moore suggested that those types of positions - plus his "social background" as a former Peace Corps volunteer who spent five years studying with the Franciscan religious order - make him best qualified to serve in Congress.
"I have stood up for principle," he said at a recent forum. "I will represent the people all of the time."
For 20 years, Penberthy has taught Pinellas County teens about government and the economy.
Dissatisfied with the direction Congress has taken the country, Penberthy decided to put some of his lessons into practice by "running for Karen Thurman's seat that is temporarily occupied by Ginny Brown-Waite."
"I really don't think we're being represented," he explained. "When you're truly not being represented, it's time to step up."
Unlike Moore and Russell, Penberthy did not collect enough petition signatures to get his name on the ballot. Instead, he paid $9,282 to secure a spot, and he has since pumped more than $60,000 of his savings into the campaign.
Penberthy says he differs from his opponents in several ways. First, he says, he is the only candidate never to have left the Democratic Party.
"I am proud to say, for the last 31 years I've been a lifelong Democrat," he said.
He also is the only candidate to have served in active military duty. He then served in the Naval Reserve.
Perhaps most important, Penberthy suggests, is his thorough consideration of the issues.
"I've put out the most comprehensive platform," he said, referring to his newsletter and his Web site, which provide his thoughts on subjects ranging from the federal budget to oil policy.
"You've got to go beyond a slick brochure," Penberthy said, taking a jab at Whittel, whom he, Moore and Russell have accused of being long on looks and short on substance.
The newsletter makes clear that Penberthy sees little going well in Washington these days.
"Our economy has suffered job loss, our gas prices are record setting, and our Medicare and Social Security programs are in jeopardy," he wrote. "Add to this a foreign policy disaster in Iraq, and we have real problems."
He called for a "return to honesty, fairness and responsibility."
Among his ideas, Penberthy proposes:
Rolling back tax cuts from the top 5 percent of income earners.
Providing incentives for U.S. automakers to manufacture more fuel-efficient vehicles.
Converting underused government buildings into prisons.
After first announcing his candidacy, Penberthy ran a decidedly low-key campaign. Its highlight was a handpainted car supporting him, and a handful of blue-and-white yard signs that some people said were unclear on which office he is seeking.
Early in August, using his own money, he launched an animated TV commercial focusing on his qualifications and issues. He pointedly said in a news release that he was staying away from negative campaigning, distancing himself from the anti-Whittel aspect of the race that Russell has pursued.
The country needs new people in charge, Penberthy said. He suggested his ideas and ideals make him best suited to sit in Congress.
Russell, a registered nurse, tells audiences he is "the guy to get you there on health care."
He wears a stethoscope around his neck during presentations to drive the message home.
His yard signs make the point, with the words "Russell" and "health care" more clearly visible than the words "for Congress."
For more specifics than a three-minute speech can include, Russell's Web site offers his analysis of the U.S. health care system and then his solutions: insurance reimbursement for physicians, drug prices for consumers and so forth.
"I'm trying to fight government for the corporations, by the corporations, at the expense of the individuals," Russell said. "What happens when this catches up with us and we don't have someone available to take out your appendix?"
Yet when people talk about Russell, more often than not they talk about his volatility. They note how his voice rises when he attacks Whittel as a "liar," and how he sometimes brags about shouting down President Bush at local rallies.
Some call Russell a "loose cannon" or a "bomb thrower," labels he wears with a degree of pride - as well as some defensiveness.
"I'm very articulate. I'm very knowledgeable. And I'm doing what the media does not do: ask pointed questions of public officials in public forums," he said. "People love me for that."
In fact, he suggested that his ability to engage the president in a brief, unplanned conversation about jobs makes him best suited to take on a tough politician like Brown-Waite.
"To defeat someone with the persona and contentious nature of Virginia Brown-Waite, I contend I'm the only one who can stand there toe to toe and put her back in her seat," he said.
He said he would paint a picture of the consequences of actions that Brown-Waite supported, vs. what he would do in Congress.
For instance, Russell says the GOP approach to the economy is all about wealth concentration, which ultimately hurts working people.
"Right now, we have a Third World economy. People aren't really aware of it yet," he said.
He cited how some chief executives make 500 times more than their workers, and how health care is rationed according to means rather than need.
"I would vote for repeal of the tax cuts on upper-income groups," Russell said. "I'm for means testing and prorating. Why should we be giving breaks to people who don't need breaks?"
Russell is motivated by his job. He spends days providing advanced health care to patients, and wonders what kind of health care will be available when he is older and needs it.
He said he worries that the country cannot afford four more years under George W. Bush, and he thinks he is the best of the four Democratic hopefuls to carry the John Kerry banner in the 5th District.
"History can be determined by who is running in this race," Russell said. "Are you going to have someone out there fighting to persuade people of the consequences of their vote, or are you not going to have somebody out there?"
He pointed specifically at Whittel, who he said has put forth a false front and enough money to win if people just read campaign brochures and don't ask tough questions. Russell said he has attacked Whittel to make sure that wealth alone is not what wins or loses elections.
"I have a perspective that the other guys can't bring to this," he said. "How the other half lives, I have certainly experienced that very closely."
Whittel could have been put on the defensive from the earliest moments of his campaign.
Almost from the day he announced his candidacy, Whittel has been the subject of scrutiny from within the party. People called the news media throughout the 5th District raising questions about his voter registration, his residency, his jobs and his military record.
For the record:
Whittel registered as a Republican in Hernando County in 1995, changing to the Democratic Party in March. He has never voted.
Whittel has called his parents' winter home in High Point "home" since 1995, although he has not lived there much. He has resided in Gainesville, Atlanta and Miami, where he owns rental property. He currently lives in a leased house near Weeki Wachee.
Whittel is a lawyer and runs a limited practice from his home. He does not have a county occupational license because he does not see clients at his home. He has served brief stints with the Miami-Dade County prosecutor's office and with the Atlanta law firm of King & Spalding.
Whittel graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and worked in marine-related businesses until joining a law firm in 2001. He has been in the Naval Reserve since 1995.
From his perspective, that's his biography and nothing more. He figures his detractors have attacked him because, lacking funding or campaign organization, they couldn't generate attention otherwise.
So rather than repeatedly fending off the negative campaigning with his resume, Whittel has tried to stay focused on the issues facing the country.
"We've had positions out," he said. "That's the way we deal, on the issues."
He has issued several press releases, usually tied to events of the day. When Florida schoolchildren returned to classes this month, for instance, he sent out an attack on the GOP's No Child Left Behind Act.
"When we ignore the fundamentals of education and only focus on standardized tests, we rob our children of the world-class education they deserve," Whittel said in the release.
When the state gave up its effort to remove a "purge list" of suspected former felons from the voter rolls, Whittel sent out comments lauding the move and raising concerns about touch-screen voting.
He has spoken about the need to better support military veterans, to reduce the growing budget deficits and to make the recent Medicare changes more fair and understandable.
To make sure his views got a wide audience - not to mention hits on Internet search engines - Whittel delivered his releases to PR Newswire, which supplies news releases to media outlets.
He also has plastered yard signs and campaign brochures throughout the eight-county district. He has hired a campaign staff and has received far more contributions than the others have.
Through Aug. 11, Whittel had reported $57,999 in individual contributions. They were almost exclusively from lawyers, and largely from people living outside the 5th District. He also put $47,100 of his own money into the campaign.
Penberthy, the next highest, had received $5,429 from individuals.
Whittel suggested that his candidacy, which he termed "legitimate and strong," offers voters the chance to put someone reasonable in Congress.
"This is a district that needs mainstream values," he said.
* * *
Because Florida has done away with runoff elections, the Aug. 31 primary is winner-take-all. Even though former U.S. Rep. Thurman did not enter the fray, she hinted strongly that she will play as large a role as the nominee will allow in trying to bump Brown-Waite from office.
But it's a tough chore, she said, noting the amount of money Brown-Waite has ($576,266 as of July 14) and likely can rely on - millions from pro-Republican organizations like the ones that pumped cash into the campaign that beat Thurman.
All four hopefuls acknowledged the uphill climb that awaits the winner. But each relished the opportunity to try.
"We can't "Waite' any longer," as Penberthy wrote in his campaign newsletter. "We need for our representative to be responsive - not just another Bush rubber stamp."
MOORE: Calls upon the Bush administration to end the war immediately. Says the United States should transfer military authority to the United Nations by Jan. 1, 2005.
PENBERTHY: Calls the war a bad precedent, signaling that the United States will unilaterally sacrifice lives and money to police the world. But the country cannot just cut and run, he says, calling for an orderly transfer of power to the United Nations.
RUSSELL: Opposes the Bush administration military and diplomatic policies toward Iraq.
WHITTEL: Says initiating military action without a direct threat makes the United States less safe by alienating allies and creating new enemies.
USA PATRIOT ACT
MOORE: Suggests the act does not help manage intelligence or improve protection against terrorism, but rather creates an air "similar to prewar Germany." Calls for the act to expire in December 2005, or for Congress to repeal it sooner.
PENBERTHY: Says Congress should consider how it wants to see Americans treated abroad, and act accordingly. Says the act infringes on basic American freedoms, and it should be monitored and modified as necessary.
RUSSELL: Supports allowing the act to expire. Opposes indefinite detention of people suspected of terrorist activity.
WHITTEL: Calls for modifications, to ensure the law applies to terrorists and not to average Americans. Says the law allows for infringement of Americans' Fourth Amendment rights. Opposes indefinite detention without due process.
MOORE: Supports a single-payer national health care system. Calls for repeal of the 2003 Medicare changes and for a reduction of subsidies to the pharmaceutical, rural hospital and HMO industries.
PENBERTHY: Supports a single-payer universal health insurance system. Also calls for education incentives to draw more students into health care fields, as the baby boom generation ages and more services are needed.
RUSSELL: Calls for a move to single-payer universal health care. Also would support a federal tax deduction for medical care provided to uninsured patients by Medicare-certified providers.
WHITTEL: Says quality health care is a right, not a privilege. Says Congress should reduce deficits and put the money toward health care, and Congress should make insurance universally available to all Americans.
MOORE: Opposes the use of Social Security funds for private investment purposes. Would not support reduction in benefits, but would vote for an increase in the ceiling for taxable income.
PENBERTHY: Favors an increase in the cap on wages subject to Social Security tax, while reducing the tax rate.
RUSSELL: Says Social Security can be secured through the repeal of the Bush administration tax cuts, particularly those at the highest income levels. Opposes an increase in the retirement age.
WHITTEL: Opposes raising the retirement age. Says reducing the deficit and pursuing "common sense budgetary policy" will help keep Social Security solvent.
MOORE: Says the 2003 Medicare bill should be repealed. Supports drug reimportation and heightened congressional oversight of the research and development wings of the pharmaceutical industry.
PENBERTHY: Says the 2003 Medicare bill was filled with loopholes designed to "further line the pockets of the powerful drug companies and private managed-care companies." Supports drug reimportation and says the bill should be amended to give the government the ability to negotiate drug prices.
RUSSELL: Says the recently passed prescription drug plan must be repealed to extend the solvency of Medicare. Proposes a means-tested plan in the short term, until a universal single-payer insurance plan can be implemented.
WHITTEL: Contends the Republicans abandoned seniors by forcing an "insufficient and ineffective" prescription drug bill through Congress. Says Congress should provide a full prescription drug benefit for Medicare.
MOORE: Favors restoring health care benefits to military retirees with more than 20 years of service, including compensation to those with service-connected disabilities. Supports enhanced long-term health care and pension benefits.
PENBERTHY: Calls for improved funding for veterans' medical needs and a decrease in wait times at veteran clinics.
RUSSELL: Says he would appoint a liaison, if elected, to expedite the resolution of veteran concerns.
WHITTEL: Calls for a repeal of the Bush administration's cuts to VA medical benefits.
MOORE: Supports a woman's right to choose, although is personally opposed to abortion.
PENBERTHY: Says the government should not interfere in abortion issues. Says he is personally opposed to abortion.
RUSSELL: Supports a woman's right to choose.
WHITTEL: Says women have a constitutional right to privacy, including choice and contraception.
PERSONAL: Born June 8, 1943, in Oakland, Calif., Moore moved to Florida four years ago. He is married and lives in Spring Hill.
EDUCATION: Master's degree, public administration, Arizona State University.
POLITICAL: He ran as an independent in Congressional District 5 two years ago, garnering 2.4 percent of the general election vote and placing fourth. Elected vice chairman of the Reform Party of Florida in 2001. Because he held that political party office, the Spring Hill Civic Association voided his election as its president in early 2002. President of the Hernando County Good Government League, a small watchdog organization. Ran three times unsuccessfully for mayor in Washington, D.C.
PROFESSIONAL: A former health care executive, Moore now runs his own executive recruitment firm, specializing in health fields.
PERSONAL: Born Oct. 2, 1953, in Kenmore, N.Y., Penberthy moved to Florida about 25 years ago. He is married with four children and lives in Wesley Chapel
EDUCATION: Master's degree, political science, University of South Florida.
POLITICAL: This is Penberthy's first run for political office.
PROFESSIONAL: Penberthy has taught social studies and economics at Largo High School for 20 years. A Vietnam-era veteran, Penberthy volunteered to serve in the Army in 1972 and later joined the Navy Reserve.
PERSONAL: Born March 1, 1973, in Middletown, N.Y., Whittel first came to Florida in 1995. He is married with one daughter and lives near Weeki Wachee.
EDUCATION: Master's degree, international law, University of Cambridge. Master's degree, business administration, University of Florida. Law degree, University of Florida.
POLITICAL: This is Whittel's first run for political office.
PROFESSIONAL: A lawyer, Whittel worked about nine months for the Miami-Dade County prosecutor's office before going into limited private practice. Whittel worked in the marine industry in various capacities, including two years as an officer with the American Maritime Officers Association after graduating from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.