All eyes turn to congressional race
Democrats vying for Congressional District 11 are ramping up fundraising efforts. Kathy Castor may be the front-runner, but the other candidates are undaunted.
By ADAM C. SMITH
Published June 19, 2005
TAMPA - If there's a ground zero in the looming battle between two politically potent Tampa Bay families, it would be the historic Buchman Building in Ybor City.
That's where state Sen. Les Miller is ramping up his campaign to become the first African-American to represent Congressional District 11. It's also where Hillsborough County Commissioner Kathy Castor is mounting her campaign to succeed Jim Davis as the district's first congresswoman.
And where lawyer Scott Farrell was about to base his campaign - until Miller got wind of it the other day and put the kibosh on Farrell's lease.
"Maybe they're all trying to keep their eyes on me," Miller quipped after learning that Castor's campaign was in the building too, alongside the office of her mother, former Senate candidate Betty Castor.
In an overwhelmingly Democratic congressional district that links some of the poorest and richest neighborhoods in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Manatee counties, the race to succeed Davis is drawing close attention in Washington.
Emily's List, the influential fundraising group for female Democrats, sees the race as ripe for adding another woman to the U.S. House: Castor.
The Congressional Black Caucus sees the contest as one of the best opportunities nationwide for adding another African-American to its ranks: Miller.
Meanwhile, long shot and/or wild card candidates are undaunted by the political pedigree of Castor, whose mother last year spent more than $5-million in the Tampa Bay area, ensuring the Castor name is fresh on everyone's minds, and Miller, whose wife, Gwen, is chairwoman of the Tampa City Council.
"It is a tough race, but no candidate's going to outwork me," said Farrell, 38, who raised $45,000 over 10 days during the first quarter. He is widely viewed as an up-and-comer in Tampa Democratic politics.
Michael Steinberg, 46, a Social Security lawyer and Democratic activist, is in, touting his knowledge of federal issues. Albert Fox Jr., 61, a Washington lobbyist best known for his opposition to the Cuba embargo, intends to formally enter the race next month.
Most observers consider Castor the clear front-runner. She represents many of the district's voters on the Hillsborough County Commission. Though her mother narrowly lost her race for the Senate last year, she dramatically elevated the Castor name and won that district with 65 percent of the vote. Kathy Castor has access to her mother's statewide fundraising network.
People invited to a June 26 Kathy Castor fundraising reception in Sarasota saw a two-word return address on the envelope: Betty Castor.
"I'm not taking anything for granted. You work as hard as you can, and ask for help from friends and family," said Castor, 38, who has been organizing fundraisers, walking neighborhoods and taking a higher profile on the County Commission.
But Les Miller, 54, also represents much of the congressional district as a state senator. With his wife Gwen serving as chairwoman of the Tampa City Council, he's getting a little tired of all the talk about the powerful Castor name.
"Is the Miller name chopped liver around here?" he asked last week. "I'm the most experienced and qualified candidate."
He complained about rumors that he might drop out of the race, calling them baseless. After surgery for kidney cancer earlier this year, he said his doctors declared him cancer free, he feels good and is ready at the starting gate.
Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, recently squired Miller around Washington to help line up support.
"We were extremely impressed. I expect we will be actively involved in the race," said Rep. Albert Wynn, D-Maryland, who heads the political action committee of the Congressional Black Caucus.
No Republican has come forward in the district, where John Kerry beat George Bush by 17 percentage points last year. Davis' successor likely will be elected in the Democratic primary on Sept. 5, 2006.
About 40 percent of the registered Democrats in the district are black.
"I am in no way, shape or form, making this a racial issue. . . . I am campaigning on my experience," said Miller, who nonetheless noted that turnout among black voters could be unusually high with several other competitive races on the ballot.
More than 80 percent of the voters are in Hillsborough, where affluent south Tampa neighborhoods consistently produce the highest turnout. That's Kathy Castor's base.
Ana Cruz, a Democratic consultant from Tampa, noted that the district's heavily Hispanic West Tampa neighborhoods and heavily African-American east Tampa neighborhoods combined don't equal the number of likely voters in South Tampa. Potentially more decisive for Castor: More than 60 percent of the registered Democrats in the district are women.
"The demographics of the seat lean women," Cruz said. "And there's a national saying that when women vote, women win."
Patrick Manteiga, a Democratic activist and editor of La Gaceta newspaper, said most observers see the race as Castor's to lose. But in a crowded field, playing it too safe and centrist may be unwise.
"This is a Democratic primary, and middle of the road may not be the place you want to be," Manteiga said last week.
As if in response, Kathy Castor cast the lone County Commission vote Wednesday against banning public library displays promoting Gay Pride Month.
"Right now it's predominantly a two-person race between Castor and Miller," former Tampa City Council member Bob Buckhorn said. "She has to hold her base, and he has to broaden his, and West Tampa will probably be the battleground."
Sam Gibbons held the seat for 34 years, until Davis succeeded him in 1996. The campaign to become just the third District 11 representative in more than four decades is picking up steam, but largely below the radar. Most of the candidates are aggressively raising money and trying to line up commitments. For now, the campaign is all about building early perceptions and raising money.
Miller, the Senate Democratic leader, acknowledged he's never been a strong fundraiser, but said that will change. He expects to raise about $100,000 in the quarter ending June 30. Castor, with the burden of high expectations, said she will be in that vicinity too. Farrell, who enjoys low expectations, expects to bring his fundraising total to about $75,000.
The more crowded the field of credible candidates, some say, the more potential to trim Castor's advantage.
After Miller bumped him from his planned campaign office, Farrell chuckled that the state senator "turned his guns on the wrong person. We need each other, or we're both sunk."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727 893-8241 or firstname.lastname@example.org