tampabay.com

3 officeholders, 1 tough race

A Pinellas-Hillsborough district may provide the state's most competitive Senate race.

By CURTIS KRUEGER
Published August 6, 2006


Dressed in a bright blue polo shirt with a campaign logo, Republican state Senate candidate Frank Farkas walked tree-lined Barcelona Street in South Tampa last week, trying to greet Republican voters as he slogged to their doorsteps in muggy August heat.

Most conversations were brief - until Farkas knocked on the door of David Taulbee, 41, who was well informed and full of questions.

Farkas told him he served eight years in the Florida House.

"You going to make a career out of it?" Taulbee asked. When Farkas said no, Taulbee said, "It sounds like you are," and peppered him with questions about rising insurance rates and property taxes.

Street by street, door by door, fundraiser by fundraiser, Farkas, Kim Berfield and Charlie Justice are battling for what has been called the most competitive state Senate race in Florida.

They are hearing from voters who are fed up with skyrocketing property insurance, feel trapped by property taxes and are vocal on issues ranging from schools to Terri Schiavo.

But the race in this Pinellas-Hillsborough district is unique: No other Senate race in Florida features three House members running against each other.

All three represented Pinellas County House districts and now want to represent a larger Senate district with more than 171,000 voters in Pinellas and 93,000 in Hillsborough.

The numbers alone explain why it's so competitive - about 39.6 percent of voters are Republicans, 36.4 percent are Democrats, and about 24 percent are independent or in smaller political parties.

Farkas says "this is heaven" because even that small Republican edge feels good compared to the narrowly split district he has represented. But state Sen. Steve Geller, D-Hallandale Beach, said he's seen polls showing Justice, a Democrat, 10 or more points ahead. "Everyone that we've spoken to says that Charlie has a very substantial lead."

Act 1 comes Sept. 5 when Republicans Berfield and Farkas face off in the primary. The winner faces Justice in the Nov. 7 general election.

* * *

When Taulbee asked about making a career in politics, Farkas politely explained why eight years representing a St. Petersburg-area district is a good thing: You practically need five years just to learn what's going on.

But Farkas, 50, a chiropractor who founded his own clinic, stresses the nonpolitical part of his life.

"I have a family, I have kids, I own a home, I pay property taxes, I have to pay property insurance, I have a business, I have to meet a payroll as well as running a business and employing people. And I think that resonates with most people of Senate District 16."

Part of the reason he points this out is to contrast himself with the 35-year-old Berfield, who is single and doesn't own a house or business.

All candidates agree on one thing: Voters are really upset about rising homeowners insurance premiums. It's the most common complaint they hear on the campaign trail.

None of the three claim a perfect solution. Farkas said he will look closely at the results of a legislative study committee scheduled to report on the matter by Nov. 15, and that "I fully believe we'll have to have a special session" to address the matter.

Voters also are frustrated about property taxes, especially a byproduct of the 3 percent cap on the amount a homeowner's property tax assessment can go up in one year. Because the provision in the state Constitution keeps property assessments low for longtime homeowners, many find themselves in the paradoxical situation of having to pay a higher tax bill if they move into a smaller home.

Farkas said he has proposed a 5 percent annual increase on assessments of all the other property in Florida - business or residential - that is not covered by the 3 percent cap.

* * *

Berfield works part time for a Tallahassee advertising firm and said she devotes much of her time serving her Clearwater-area House district.

She says the fact that she doesn't have experience as a parent and business owner is irrelevant because she has proved to be an able legislator who fights hard for her constituents.

In response to a reporter's question about ethics, Berfield said, "I think Frank has placed himself in positions that have caused his character or integrity to be questioned, and I think that's unfortunate because one of the biggest challenges that we have as elected officials is making sure that we don't give our constituents a reason to lose trust or hope."

Farkas earlier this year drew criticism for going to Toronto with three fellow legislators on a trip paid for by a gambling company.

Berfield, who has served as chairwoman of the House Insurance Committee, said there is no silver bullet to homeowners insurance. The Legislature needs to stabilize the market for reinsurance, she said, and re-evaluate the government program for homeowners, Citizens Property Insurance.

Berfield said she also favors allowing elderly property owners, and possibly others, to keep their tax breaks when they move.

* * *

On one issue, Berfield and Farkas agree: Not one voter they have met on door-to-door walks has brought up Terri Schiavo.

Justice laughed when he heard that. He said he never brings up the issue, but voters often do.

Schiavo was the brain-damaged Pinellas woman thought by most doctors who examined her to be in a persistent vegetative state, whose feeding tube was removed after a court ruled that she would have wanted that to happen. But her parents and siblings strongly opposed letting her die, and the Legislature twice stepped in to intervene in a case that drew the attention of Congress and the president.

Unlike Berfield and Farkas, Justice voted twice to stay out of the matter. He said that's a key point because the government should not step in to interfere in personal tragedies.

Berfield said she voted to intervene because "it's a life-or-death situation," so caution made sense. Farkas said medical experts disagreed on Schiavo's medical state, and "unless there's certainty there, I'm not going to starve a person to death."

Justice said he also has gotten an earful about homeowners insurance and property taxes.

He touted a Democratic plan to create a state-sponsored wind insurance pool that would cover damage up to $50,000 to $100,000. That would allow the government to insure all customers, not just the higher-risk ones covered by Citizens. Justice said he would be willing to allow some property owners to keep their tax cap when they move.

Justice said voters talk to him about another financial frustration: higher phone bills. Both Republican candidates voted at least once for legislation that would have allowed phone rates to increase, on the theory that it would increase competition. Berfield voted for one version of the law that was vetoed, missed a vote on a second version of the law and then recorded an after-the-fact vote against it. Farkas voted for the law that ultimately passed and allowed rates to rise.

Justice voted no.