Will these chickens come home to roost?

Published July 30, 2006

Voters who are angry at politicians often promise to "remember in November" by throwing them out of office.

But memory is short, and campaign contributions buy a lot of slogans and pretty advertisements. Incumbents usually get re-elected.

As I never tire of pointing out, not a single member of the Florida Legislature seeking another term was defeated in the last election. Not one.

That's why what happened this past Thursday at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club, a political luncheon group in Pinellas County, was intriguing and, frankly, promising. The club held a debate for a seat in the Legislature - and it actually focused on the Legislature's track record.

The race in question is Senate District 16, which reaches from northeast St. Petersburg up into Clearwater and over to Tampa. The incumbent in Senate District 16 is Jim Sebesta, a Republican. He's retiring.

Three members of the state House hope to replace him. There are two Republicans, Kim Berfield of Clearwater and Frank Farkas of St. Petersburg. There's one Democrat, Charlie Justice, also of St. Petersburg.

So there's no "incumbent." But there are still two interesting questions about how the past will affect the race:

- Whether Farkas, who has more baggage than American Tourister from doing favors in Tallahassee, can still out-hustle the vanilla-nice Berfield in the Republican primary.

- Whether the mild-mannered Justice can actually make voters remember in November and get angry over the record of the Republican-controlled Legislature.

After their blah-blah opening statements, the three candidates took questions from the 170 or so Tiger Bay members, who lived up to the club's goal of asking tough questions.

The first came from Bill Jonson, a member of the Clearwater City Council. He brought up one of my favorites - the billboard law.

The 2006 Legislature made it illegal to plant trees too close to billboards. The bill produced my nominee for Stupidest Quote of the Year from a legislator who declared, "Tourism depends on billboards, not on trees."

Jonson asked, snarkily, why the Legislature had made cracking down on "garden club ladies" one of its priorities. Berfield and Farkas didn't duck; they both said they voted to protect the private property rights of billboard owners. Justice voted against the bill.

Next, Rob Eschenfelder asked the candidates who would be best for ethics. This was a hot button, considering that one of Farkas' more recent escapades was jetting off on a $48,000 trip paid for by gambling interests.

Farkas, gamely, pointed out that Berfield had gotten a lot of insurance industry contributions. (Of course, this was coming from a man who once tried to get mammograms and cleft palates removed from the list of things that insurance had to cover in Florida.)

Berfield replied with just a tinge of acid that her constituents would never be embarrassed by anything she did. Justice said he was the only one willing to ban "527s," the shadowy fundraising committees that are all the rage.

Next came the Terri Schiavo case, in which the Legislature tried to trump the court system to keep Schiavo alive. "That's a simple answer - life and death," Berfield replied. She chose to err on the side of life.

Ed Helm, the new head of the county Democrats, asked Farkas about his attempt to get developer Grady Pridgen an end run around local control of one of his projects. Farkas wriggled, saying no bill was ever filed. (For the record, the amendment had been drafted, and they were trying to find a bill to stick it on before local opposition and publicity killed it.)

In closing, Justice returned to the Schiavo case. He said people told him they wanted family decisions to be their own and not the government's. The difference between him and the other two was "crystal clear."

Overall, it was refreshing to see the candidates being forced to talk about what the Legislature had actually done, instead of skating by with the usual platitudes. I thought Berfield was a touch canned, generic. There is no better campaigner than Farkas, as he has proved several times. Just saying This Race Is About the Future won't beat him.

As for Justice and the Democrats' combative new chairman, Helm - what's this? They actually want to remind voters of the majority party's track record on insurance, Schiavo and FCAT mania? It is a novel strategy. Watch this race to see whether they have the gumption to make it a fight.