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Four Republicans hoping for state House

Homeowners insurance is a major issue for District 48 hopefuls. Heading into the primary, one candidate is targeted in two mailers.

Published September 4, 2006

The Republican campaign for state House District 48 has taken on a personal edge in its final week.

Going into Tuesday's primary election, voters have received two mailers from two different groups targeting Tarpon Springs City Commissioner Peter Nehr, who has raised the most money of the four candidates in the race.

Nehr countered with his own mailers urging voters not to let "dirty politics" play a role in their decision.

"We knew this was coming," Nehr said, contending that the attack ads came from groups that are sympathetic or have ties to two of his opponents, Palm Harbor chiropractor Ken Peluso and businessman Brian Flaherty.

But Peluso and Flaherty said they had nothing to do with the mailers.

"I found that in my mail," Peluso said of an anti-Nehr piece mailed by HealthWatch Florida, which is led by St. Petersburg chiropractor Donald Krippendorf. "That was the first I knew about it."

The other flier came from the Tallahassee-based Committee to Restore Integrity in Politics, whose president, Roger "Rockie" Pennington, is president of Direct Mail Systems, a political communications company that Flaherty's campaign has used.

"I have nothing to do with that committee; my campaign has nothing to do with that committee," Flaherty said of the Committee to Restore Integrity in Politics. He also said he was not aware of Pennington's involvement with the committee.

Along with former Safety Harbor City Commissioner Robin Borland, Flaherty, Nehr and Peluso are seeking the GOP nomination to replace state Rep. Gus Bilirakis, who is running for the U.S. House. District 48 stretches from Countryside in northern Clearwater into Holiday and Trinity in Pasco County.

Both anti-Nehr ads focused on criticism leveled at the candidate as a city commissioner. During his first term, other city officials complained that Nehr repeatedly approached city workers and ordered them around despite city charter and election-time rules restricting commissioners' contacts with city staffers.

Both ads also said Nehr hypocritically took thousands of dollars in city trips after criticizing officials for doing the same thing.

Finally, although produced by different groups, each ad seemed to make a pop-culture reference to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who, like Nehr, was born in Austria. Playing off the Terminator movies, the HealthWatch Florida ad called Nehr "The Violator" and urged voters to tell him "Hasta la vista, baby." The other ad reproduced a bodybuilding photo of Nehr - in a bathing suit, tanned and flexing, Arnold-like, for the camera - featured in a Times story about his weight-loss and exercise regimen.

Nehr said he was glad the ad didn't use the other photo of him - pasty and blank-faced, with his gut lapping over his waistband.

"If I was on the other side, I would have used the 'before' picture, not the 'after' picture," he said.

In response to the criticisms, Nehr said he was not trying to do anything improper in his discussions with city staffers and that he changed his approach after the criticism. He was, he said, trying help people who had problems with code enforcement and occupational licenses.

As for the travel, Nehr said he came to understand how valuable it is to lobby state and federal officials in person and has apologized publicly for criticizing other officials for taking trips.

The attack ads aren't the first allegations of shady dealings in the campaign.

On Aug. 27, Flaherty reported Dennis Frank Fabricatore of New Port Richey to authorities after he said he spotted Fabricatore driving down the street with a trailer loaded with stolen campaign signs from him and Peluso. Fabricatore was charged with grand theft, and both Borland and Nehr denied knowing him.

Aside from the last-minute maneuvering, much of the campaign has been focused on voters' anxiety over the rising cost and decreasing availability of property insurance.

Borland said she has tried to reach most voters on their doorsteps and to convince them that she will work the hardest for them. It's an approach she used as a city commissioner, she said.

"I'm grass roots," Borland said. "I didn't take any special-interest money to run my campaign. I'm going door to door. ... I'm trying to win this with hard work, which is exactly what I would bring. My track record in Safety Harbor proves it."

Borland said she favors not letting insurance companies "cherry-pick" which types of coverage - homeowners, auto, motorcycle or whatever else - they will be allowed to offer and to require them to keep a certain percentage of their existing clientele so they don't "drop and run."

Flaherty touts his service on the board of the Pinellas County Housing Authority, where, he said, he led efforts to reduce expenses, invest those savings in affordable housing and work with other local housing authorities to consolidate the agencies' information technology and other operations.

"I can bring a fresh business approach to government," Flaherty said.

On insurance, Flaherty supports a national catastrophic insurance fund to spread the risk beyond Florida, though he sees that as more of a national issue. He also has suggested diverting money now being paid to the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp. into a state reinsurance pool to make low-cost reinsurance - coverage that insurance companies buy to protect themselves - more available. Flaherty also supports providing a tax incentive to residents who improve existing structures so they can better withstand strong winds.

Nehr points to his experience as a two-term city commissioner and cites as accomplishments his work to reopen the library's community room to civic groups and move bus stops away from U.S. 19.

"I have a history of getting things done," he said.

Nehr said insurance companies should not be allowed to drop customers shortly before hurricane season and ought to offer a wider variety of deductibles to give customers more premiums to choose from. He also said insurance companies should inspect each home instead of relying on demographic information to make coverage decisions. That way, he said, homeowners could benefit from upgrading their homes against storms.

Peluso said his main appeal to voters should be his history as a community activist, serving on groups such as the Palm Harbor fire commission and the Greater Palm Harbor Area Chamber of Commerce.

"I'm a proven community leader," Peluso said. "I've been doing it for 20 years and my only commitment is to continue doing what I've been doing for 20 years. I don't promise anything that I haven't already done."

Peluso supports requiring insurance companies to include Florida in a larger risk pool to make insurance more affordable. He also supports steps to make reinsurance more available.

But, he said, "We do need to make sure the Legislature is not Florida's insurance company."

In fundraising, Nehr had raised $163,325 in cash contributions through Aug. 31, according to campaign finance reports filed with the state last week. Peluso had raised $131,228, Flaherty had $67,746 in cash contributions and Borland had raised $22,902.

Polls will be open Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The winner of the Republican primary will face Democrat Carl Zimmermann of Palm Harbor, a journalism teacher at Countryside High School, in the general election Nov. 7.


ROBIN BORLAND, 39, is a personal trainer at the YMCA and served as a Safety Harbor city commissioner from 2001 to 2004. From 2004 to 2005, Borland worked as a legislative aide to state Rep. Gus Bilirakis. Borland was born and raised in Pinellas County and earned a bachelor's degree in fine arts from the University of South Florida in 1998. Before that she earned an associate's degree from St. Petersburg College and a degree in computer graphics from Pinellas Technical Education Centers. She is married and has a son.

ASSETS: House.


SOURCES OF INCOME: YMCA salary, husband's salary as a director at Nielsen Media Research.


BRIAN FLAHERTY, 47, is an electrical contractor and has owned Brico Electric in Clearwater since 1993. He was appointed housing commissioner for the Pinellas County Housing Authority in 1998; his term expires in December. He was also appointed to the North Pinellas Recreational Advisory Board last year. Flaherty also has worked as a developer of affordable housing. He attended Franklin Institute of Technology in Boston from 1976 to 1977 and Middlesex Community College in Bedford, Mass., from 1980 to 1981. He is married and has two daughters.

ASSETS: House, rental property, partnership of two commercial buildings in Clearwater, retirement account.

LIABILITIES: Mortgage on rental properties and commercial properties.

SOURCES OF INCOME: Brico Electric, rental and commercial properties, and income from his wife, Karen M. Flaherty, a legislative aide for state Rep. Gus Bilirakis.


PETER F. NEHR, 54, owns the American Spirit Flag Shop in Tarpon Springs, which opened in 1993. He is in his second term as a Tarpon Springs city commissioner. Nehr, an immigrant from Austria, is a member of the Tarpon Springs Rotary Club and served as president of the Kiwanis Club in New Port Richey. After two of his sons said they didn't want to go to college because he hadn't, Nehr went back to school, even taking some classes with one son. In 2000, he graduated summa cum laude from the University of South Florida with a bachelor's degree in political science. Nehr is married and has three sons.

ASSETS: Home, business, stocks.

LIABILITIES: Mortgage, car loans.

SOURCES OF INCOME: Business, city commissioner's salary.


KEN PELUSO, 49, a Palm Harbor chiropractor, owns Peluso Chiropractic and Rehab. He was elected Palm Harbor fire commissioner in 2000 and was re-elected in 2002. He served as president of the Palm Harbor Chamber of Commerce in 1995 and as chairman of the Palm Harbor Community Services Board from 2002 to 2004. He earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., and a doctorate of chiropractic from Sherman College of Chiropractic in Spartanburg, S.C. Peluso is married and has two sons.

ASSETS: Home, two office buildings, retirement accounts.

LIABILITIES: Mortgages on his home and one office building.

SOURCES OF INCOME: Chiropractic practice, rental income.



District 48 covers parts of Tarpon Springs, Palm Harbor, East Lake, Oldsmar, Safety Harbor and Clearwater in northern Pinellas County and parts of Holiday and Trinity in Pasco County. State representatives serve two-year terms and are paid $30,996 per year.

[Last modified September 4, 2006, 06:34:30]

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