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Hard times, higher calling put her in

Samm Simpson is ready for her next big challenge: the 10th district congressional race.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE
Published September 25, 2006


DUNEDIN - Samm Simpson spent two months training her pet rabbit to use a litter box. She plays guitar and sings in a jazz improvisational band.

Talk to the 52-year-old and you'll learn she's a grandmother and "a follower of Jesus." She earns money by doing voice-overs and mows her own lawn. She even claims to enjoy it.

She's not the kind of person you'd expect to find in a congressional race, much less one that pits her against powerful 18-term Republican incumbent C.W. Bill Young.

Simpson thinks of herself as David to his Goliath. Others see it differently.

"She is clearly, at best, a female Don Quixote tilting at political windmills," said Darryl Paulson, government professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. "There are long shot campaigns and this is longer than a long shot. This is almost an intergalactic campaign."

If Simpson manages to get as much as 35 percent of the vote in November, she should hold a victory party, Paulson said.

Young, who has not faced a serious challenger in years, claims not to be counting her out. "The first election that I won many years ago, nobody thought I had a chance of winning, so I don't take anything for granted," he said.

Simpson believes she can win.

"Yes. Yes, I do," she said during a recent interview. "There's something larger than me that's causing me to run. I've been watching this administration systematically undo law, the separation of powers, torture, mismanage, lie. I've been watching seniors fall into doughnut holes, watching family members not have proper health insurance or care, watching that our jails are filled with 2.1-million inmates.

"I have been watching 40 percent of high school students drop out. I had a situation where I had to take my grandson into my home and give him up for adoption because of some serious situations that many families face, and I want a better world for my grandson, and I want a better world for the children, and what they're doing is wrong."

She talked with barely a pause.

Simpson arrived for her early afternoon interview in a 1998 Toyota pickup with a bumper sticker promoting her campaign. It's paid for, she said, patting the red truck. She brought a stack of articles and a couple of books: The 9/11 Commission Report: Omissions and Distortions and Financial Report of the United States: The Official Annual White House Report. She's trying to "come up to speed" with what she needs to know, Simpson said.

Rae Esposito is a close friend. The women met while attending a film class in 1989 and have been close ever since. To Esposito, Simpson is a bright, financially astute woman who sings and writes well. "She's got the left brain going on. She's got the right brain going on," she said.

"I never in a million years thought that she would get involved in politics," Esposito said by telephone from her Longwood home. "I think she was mad, and she's not going to take it any more."

Simpson said the president made her do it when he gave his annual state of the union address.

"The president of the United States was continuing to lie about our reasons for going into Iraq and ... I had had it. And I thought, what can I do? Something came over me. I've got to do something and besides, I have a grandson," she said.

"I'm calling myself now a follower of Jesus, rather than a born again Christian. I saw this president do this in the name of the Lord and I know Jesus personally and I saw the Christian right jump on board and confuse faith and nationalism and I say, it's time to kick the Pharisees and the Sadducees out of the temple."

Hers is a grass roots campaign for the 10th Congressional District that generally includes Pinellas County south of Clearwater, plus Dunedin and Palm Harbor. Portions of southern St. Petersburg are not included.

It took five weeks for Simpson and her volunteers to collect 4,089 signatures to get on the ballot, one more than needed. Young paid the $9,726 entry fee to be listed.

Ed Helm, chairman of the Pinellas Democratic Party, calls Simpson "the miracle candidate."

"I told Samm she would never qualify by petition," he said. "I guess the message is, every vote counts."

Through Aug. 16, she raised a mere $9,189 in donations compared to Young's $356,392. "At first, I was told I needed a million. I scoffed. Isn't democracy supposed to be about the people?" she asked.

She has no paid campaign staff, but has leased space in the Pinellas County Democratic headquarters at 2250 First Ave. N, in St. Petersburg. She hopes to open another office in Clearwater.

She was born in Iowa and moved to Florida for a television job in 1982. As a single mother, the move meant she and her young daughter would have the support of her parents who lived in the state.

Simpson is a self-described fiscal conservative. She shares her Dunedin home with Paul McDowell, her companion of eight years. They have honeysuckle, bamboo and azaleas in their yard, as well as a large fish pond.

Her life hasn't been easy.

As a single mother she had to juggle work and home, and then later, when her daughter had troubles of her own, Simpson took in her grandson.

She smiles when she talks about the few months he lived with her last year, before she made the difficult choice to give him up for adoption.

"He's doing great, and he's going to have such a wonderful life," Simpson said. "I can write letters." She carries photos of the little blond boy who called her Nana.

Her daughter is a painful topic. There were long pauses as Simpson tried to decide what to say about the 27-year-old woman. If elected to Congress, the $165,200 salary will provide needed money for her daughter's medical care, she said.

Simpson sees her own family problems as a reason voters should pick her. "I think that people that hurt, people that have been touched by pain have more compassion and more understanding," she said.

Simpson believes she'll do a better job than Young. "Congressman Young has done tremendous things for the county. I honor him for that," she said. "What Congressman Young will not do is stand up against this administration that is running rampant, putting this country in debt, continuing to put our young men and women in tremendous harm. Mr. Young will not stop that. He will not engage in that. I will."

To spread her message, Simpson started a Web site - sammsimpsonforcongress.com - and attends house parties thrown by supporters. She is prompt in granting media interviews and appears at any forum or debate that sends an invitation. Young has been a no-show at the few events she's attended so far, she said.

To reach the younger crowd, one of her volunteers also created a page on Myspace.com.

In February, Young turned up at the same restaurant where she and Helm were meeting with a handful of supporters. Simpson went to talk to him about the prison abuse in Iraq.

Helm finds meaning in the coincidental meeting and what he sees as more evidence that things are working in Simpson's favor.

"I've concluded that this is going to be a very surprising and unusual race," he said. "Don't bet on Goliath."

Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at (727) 892-2283 or wmoore@sptimes.com.

About Samm Simpson

- Born Dec. 7, 1953, in Iowa City as Denise Simpson. She renamed herself Sam when she was 6, adding the extra "m" in eighth grade.

- Worked in Minneapolis and Denver as a radio broadcaster between 1974 and 1982.

- Was a writer and producer for television in Pensacola in 1981. She moved to Florida in 1982 for a job as creative services director at for WFTS-TV.

- Worked at Raymond James & Associates from 1984 to 2001, holding positions as assistant vice president of marketing and later vice president of marketing.

- Managed television and radio operations for the Pinellas County Economic Development Office from 2001 to 2003.

- Currently hosts a monthly television show, Media is Propaganda, on Pinellas' public access channel. She also does voice-overs for radio, TV and the Internet