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Election 2004

House race is Florida power struggle

Whoever wins District 46 will affect the entire Legislature, currently dominated by Republicans.

By MELIA BOWIE
Published October 17, 2004

Among the politically wired, the battle for Pasco's District 46 seat is likely to be one of the most watched, most expensive and most competitive state House races this November.

The irony, say the candidates - Republican John Legg and Democrat Dee Thomas - is that until recently most voters had no idea who they were.

Nonetheless, insiders estimate that more than half a million dollars will be spent toward winning the area.

Already state senators and members of Congress have thrown their support to one candidate or the other. Slick TV commercials are airing and fliers are filling up mailboxes.

Why is the local seat so important?

Numbers, say both Democrats and Republicans.

"The Republicans want to make sure they have an 80-member majority" at minimum, said Legg, a 29-year-old teacher and charter school founder. In a 120-member Legislature, "80 is the magic number the speaker has named."

That majority makes it easier to work on bills and avoid filibusters, Legg said.

Democrats say the current 81-39 split means their party has been more easily railroaded.

Thomas, a 58-year-old physical therapist, said the Republican-dominated Legislature is in large part why she is running.

"I don't think Tallahassee is in balance," she said. "Nearly half of our residents' voices are not being heard."

Party leaders say there are precious few open races this year in which both Republican and Democrat have an equal shot at winning. The House seat representing much of west Pasco is one of them.

"This is a rare opportunity for us to retake a seat we feel we can win," said Steven Schale, spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party. "The Republicans see this as key to them holding their (two-thirds) supermajority in the Legislature."

High stakes, big money, full-court press

Both parties are throwing money, consultants and campaign managers behind their candidates.

Thomas' bid is being aided by Nancy Texeira, who was hired by the state party after working with Sen. Joe Lieberman, the former vice presidential candidate.

The high stakes in this race mean "we are doing things that I don't think have been done in Pasco before," said Texeira, noting a field campaign that includes knocking on more than 20,000 doors, speaking engagements and fundraisers.

Thomas had raised more than $170,000 in contributions, many of them from local residents, as of Friday, the latest state-required filing period.

Her supporters include U.S. Rep. Jim Davis and former U.S. Rep. Karen Thurman, who are hosting events or lending name recognition.

Legg's campaign reports more than $55,000 in donations, but that number does not tell the whole story. The schoolteacher is receiving significant money from in-kind contributions and other support that does not have to be reported.

By the time the Nov. 2 general election rolls around, both Legg and Schale anticipate the bid for District 46 - one of the few open seats in the state - will become a half-million-dollar race.

In 2002 when Republican Heather Fiorentino was running to keep her District 46 seat, she and her challengers reported a combined total of about $218,000 in contributions, according to the state's division of elections.

In many ways, this year's battle between the parties is a race of contrasts.

A self-professed moderate, the silver-haired Thomas promotes her life experience, an extensive health care background and more than 35 years as a business leader in Pasco. She moved to the area from Palm Harbor in 2003 as she announced her candidacy.

The physical therapy firm Thomas co-founded is one of the area's first employee-owned companies. Thomas was the first woman to lead the national Employee Stock Ownership Plan Association in Washington, D.C., that represents more than 11-million people.

She testified before Congress twice and is on the board of various local civic and professional groups.

At 29, Legg is a self-described conservative Republican who grew up in Hudson and started Dayspring Academy, Pasco's first charter school. He gained experience in state politics working for the Republican Party and for Fiorentino and state Sen. Mike Fasano, who poses with Legg in campaign literature.

Legg speaks of his education experience, is aggressively pushing in-home care for seniors and says he can hit the ground running in Tallahassee.

Area generally doesn't lean left or right

District 46 is an open field for both candidates.

Although the district supported Al Gore in the 2000 presidential race and registered Democrats narrowly outnumber Republicans, 37,337 to 36,722, Fiorentino twice won the area's nod of approval.

Voters with no party affiliation or those with memberships in other political parties also comprise more than 21,000 of the district's 95,605 voters.

As a whole, "this is an independently minded district," said Legg. "They vote for the candidate."

The area also is consumer driven, he said, and is fond of electing people who will "stand up for the little guy" - something Legg promises to do.

All told, about 13 seats in the state House are up for grabs as Republicans are not running for re-election. Of those, four or five are believed to be toss-ups, Republican Party insiders say.

Among the hotly contested seats, Democrats say, are ones in Volusia, St. John's and Broward counties. Then there is Pasco.

"We are intent on keeping this seat in Republican hands," said Joseph Agostini, spokesman for the Republican Party of Florida.

"We are taking nothing for granted and we are fighting very aggressively," Agostini said, adding "the Democrats certainly have reason to be very concerned about their future in Florida. They have a lot of rebuilding to do . . . virtually from scratch."

Thomas agreed that the Democrats have work to do.

"I think that the party must realize if we do not start moving a little bit more to the center I think we're going to continue to lose races," she said, adding that a moderate position is a natural fit for her.

Nonetheless, "I think it would be wrong to say I don't feel pressure from the party" to win, Thomas said. "It's pressure I'm putting on myself" - not wanting to let anyone down.

But with strong backing and a growing list of political endorsements, she is confident.

"We're upbeat," Thomas said. "We think our message is right for the district."

Melia Bowie can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6229, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6229. Her e-mail address is bowie@sptimes.com

[Last modified October 17, 2004, 01:24:26]


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