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Primary provides a mirror image

Underdogs are nipping at the heels of political heavyweights in both primaries in District 52.

LEONORA LAPETER
Published August 23, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - Less than two weeks before the Sept. 5 primary, the House District 52 race is emerging as a contest of politically connected heavyweights and underdogs.

On the Republican side, St. Petersburg-native Angelo Cappelli, a bank trust adviser, has raised $136,113 - more money than all of his competitors combined. His Republican rival, Ross Johnson, has been walking door to door for months but has raised the least money: $39,248.

On the Democratic side, former University of South Florida St. Petersburg dean Bill Heller has raised more money in two months than his opponent, Liz McCallum, raised in a year and a half of campaigning. This contest is getting prickly, with him accusing her of not knowing the community and her accusing him of not being a true Democrat.

Political analysts predict Cappelli and Heller will win their primaries and face off in the Nov. 7 general election. The race is considered one of a handful that Democrats must win to regain traction in Florida politics.

"That's a key race in the state of Florida, though it's a tossup," said Darryl Paulson, a professor of government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. "The Republicans have won that race the last eight years. But it wouldn't surprise me a bit if the Democrats picked up that seat."

All four candidates are going door to door in the district, which covers north St. Petersburg and portions of unincorporated Pinellas County, Largo and Clearwater. But both Johnson, a part-time real estate agent, and McCallum, a campaign consultant who moved to Pinellas County in 2004, claim they have reached more voters by walking neighborhoods.

Democrats

McCallum, 37, and Heller, 70, have begun to attack each other. McCallum has labeled Heller as a big-money guy with support from the community elite. She has portrayed herself as a grass roots candidate who knows Pinellas the best.

"The biggest difference between me and my primary opponent is that I'm talking and listening to them and understanding their concerns," McCallum said. "My opponent is talking at them. He doesn't have time to walk all the neighborhoods or the volunteer effort so he's going to barrage them with TV (ads)."

Heller, who entered the race late in June, has spent $49,883 of the $59,171 he has raised (not including a $20,000 loan) with Bright House Networks for TV ads.

His campaign signs should begin appearing this weekend. He has sent out a few mailers, including one that says he will stand up against insurance companies that cherry-pick auto and life insurance policies.

McCallum has poured much of the $43,017 she has raised into signs and campaign mailers that tell voters she's like them and won't be beholden to special interests. She isn't buying TV ads.

Heller, who has lived here 14 years, rejected the McCallum's notion that she knows Pinellas more. He led a citizens group that successfully pushed a tax referendum to give Pinellas County teachers more pay and serves as chair of Bayfront Hospital's board of trustees and president of Great Explorations children's museum.

"I agree that this election should be a referendum on who knows our community better," he said. "Ms. McCallum has lived here only two years, but done nothing but run for office and not served in any leadership capacity in this community."

Heller says state party Democrats, including Betty Castor, recruited him to run against McCallum because they thought he had a better chance to win in the general election.

In an interview with the Times editorial board, Heller said he has not received as much support from the local Democratic party and its recently elected chairman, Ed Helm.

"It's hard when you see (a McCallum) bumper sticker on his car when he should be supportive of every candidate," Heller said. "The party could be more unified."

Helm said he does not favor either candidate. He removed the bumper sticker on his car from McCallum's last bid for House District 52. But his wife has a McCallum bumper sticker on her car and they recently traded cars for a few days.

McCallum, author of Florida's Guide to Political Appointments, won 47 percent of the vote two years ago against Frank Farkas, the incumbent who is now running for the state Senate. That kind of support, she said, shows that thousands of voters know her.

"She did well two years ago because Frank Farkas had done some things in the Legislature and after six years developed political enemies and opposition," said Paulson, the USF government professor.

McCallum questions Heller's Democratic credentials because he's given so much to Republican candidates. Since 1996, Heller has given at least $5,000 to various state Democrat candidates and at least $4,300 to state Republican candidates - including to Cappelli for this seat (made before Heller entered the race) and Charlie Crist for governor. He even was listed as a host on a fundraiser for Crist, something he agreed to months before he became a candidate (he didn't go).

Heller points out he's a bridge builder, with friends who are both Democrats and Republicans, someone who can draw consensus from people of both parties.

"As dean of USF, it was important to the university that I have relationships on both sides of the aisle," Heller said. "But what's more interesting is Ms. McCallum's contributions. Aside from loans to her own campaign, she has only made a single contribution of $50 to one candidate."

McCallum said she may not have enough money to contribute to Democratic candidates but she has helped their campaigns in other ways.

Republicans

The low-key contest between Cappelli, 36, and Johnson, 53, has so far been waged in mailers and at the doorsteps of voters. Cappelli had little to say about his strategy - except that he is trying to reach as many voters as possible.

Cappelli still had about $79,000 left as of Aug. 11, but his TV ads began airing Tuesday.

Political analysts say Johnson, who raised a respectable $38,248 in campaign contributions, is an underdog. Johnson has hundreds of signs and is sending out mailers before the primary, including one that talks about a "second-generation" FCAT that would "teach kids more than just taking a test."

"The bottom line for my whole campaign is walk, walk, walk, walk," Johnson said. "People respond personally to a candidate who's asked personally for their vote."

But Cappelli, whose mother-in-law is a longtime aide to Mel Sembler, former ambassador to Italy, has deep roots here.

"On the Republican side, Angelo Cappelli, he's out in the forefront and he's raised a lot of money and he has a lot of hard-core Republican support," said Lars Hafner, a political analyst and former Democratic state representative. "But Heller could make inroads in that support when it comes to the general election."

Times staff writer Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.

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