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Castor's seat not a cinch for Dems

The party ishaving trouble finding a candidate with the experience and the financial backing likethe GOP front-runners.

By S.I. ROSENBAUM
Published May 12, 2006


For years, Democrats easily won the County Commission seat that Kathy Castor now holds.

But this election year, the party finds itself financially outgunned by two Republican candidates, one of them a well-known City Council member. The Democrats' own front-runner, environmental activist Deborah Cope, dropped out last week.

"It's an uphill battle for any of our Democrats that want to get in the race," local party chair Janee Murphy said. "Nothing is an easy win for us right now."

Cope said that her decision to drop out turned on one factor: cash.

"The amount of money being raised now is crazy," she said.

At the end of the last quarter, Republican front-runner Rose Ferlita had $218,000 in her war chest; her Republican rival, Brad Swanson, checked in with $62,000.

Cope had only $22,000, nearly all of it a loan to herself.

Fellow Democrat Mary Mulhern had less, about $11,000 - although none of it was her own money.

A third Democrat, Steven Eckstein, declared his candidacy last week and is only beginning to raise money.

Neither Mulhern nor Eckstein has the political experience and name recognition of Ferlita, who has served on the City Council for seven years.

Neither has the behind-the-scenes backing of Brad Swanson, who has Republican power brokers Sam Rashid and Ralph Hughes in his court.

Cope said she had hoped that Swanson, positioning himself as a staunch Republican, would edge out the more moderate Ferlita.

If that happened, Cope said it would be easier for a Democrat to run in the district against a Ronald Reagan Republican.

The district was reshaped in 2001 to include the politically conservative South Shore communities of Apollo Beach, Riverview, Gibsonton and Ruskin.

Before, it only covered South Tampa and parts of Town 'N Country, and reliably elected Democrats to office.

Mulhern, one of two remaining Democratic candidates, rejected the analysis that a Democrat would have to face a right-wing conservative to win the seat.

"Local elections are run and won on issues and character, not on partisanship," she said.

Eckstein, too, was full of confidence.

Without Cope in the primary, he said, "I will have an easier time. It's one less person to fly over. Get it? I'm not running - I'm flying over these people because I have more experience in the school of hard knocks."

He added, "I'm not afraid of not having money. Money is not the problem if you've got the guts and brains and ability to express what is important."

Murphy, the party leader, said she hadn't groomed a replacement for Castor, who is running for Congress.

"There are a lot of viable candidates for District 1," she said.

Are any of them in the race?

"Obviously they're not, right now," Murphy said. "Does that mean we have to walk away with our tail between our legs? No. Who knows who will come out of the woodwork now?"

S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at 661-2442 or srosenbaum@sptimes.com.

[Last modified May 11, 2006, 17:20:23]


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