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Candidates split on social issues

In some ways, the House District 52 foes are similar. But differences are deep.

Published September 30, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - Republican Angelo Cappelli lives in the Placido Bayou neighborhood of St. Petersburg. So does his Democratic opponent in the House District 52 race, Bill Heller.

Cappelli chairs the St. Anthony's Hospital Foundation board; Heller chairs the Bayfront Medical Center board.

Both men have served on countless other boards and traveled in similar community circles. Heller even donated $100 to Cappelli's campaign before he joined the race.

But these are two very different men. Cappelli is blunt and take-charge, while Heller is personable and collaborative. Cappelli has a finance background; Heller comes from the world of education.

One of their biggest differences involves their views on social issues.

A poll released and paid for by the Heller campaign highlights those differences. The poll shows Heller ahead in the Republican-tilting district, particularly after voters learn about the candidates' views on social issues.

"My goal is to show there is a difference, and that's what I need to communicate to my constituents," said Heller, the former University of South Florida St. Petersburg dean.

Most of the social issues mentioned in the poll of 400 voters mirror those in questionnaire that Cappelli filled out for the Christian Coalition of Florida.

In the questionnaire, Cappelli, a trust adviser for SunTrust Bank, says Florida should not recognize same sex unions or require that a crime based on sexual orientation be prosecuted as a hate crime.

Heller, who declined to fill out the questionnaire because he did not seek the Christian Coalition's endorsement, said in an interview that he supports same sex-unions and thinks that crimes based on sexual orientation should be dealt with as hate crimes.

Heller supports a ban on the sale or transfer of semiautomatic guns, except those used for hunting. Cappelli opposes the ban. "I'm a defender of the Second Amendment," Cappelli said.

"I'm not a person opposed to guns," Heller said. "I've hunted and been in the military, but I am one who will say you don't have to have an assault weapon in your home."

Cappelli supports abstinence-only sex education programs in schools. Heller thinks they should include information about contraceptives and "safe sex" methods.

Heller is pro-choice. Cappelli doesn't support an abortion ban, but he believes abortions should be illegal in the second and third trimester of pregnancy.

"If the Supreme Court were to overturn Roe vs. Wade, I would not vote in the Florida Legislature to take a woman's right away during the first trimester," Cappelli said.

Cappelli opposes embryonic stem cell research that requires the destruction of a human embryo. Heller supports embryonic stem cell research.

Heller's poll by the Virginia-based Schroth Eldon & Associates, which has conducted polls for the St. Petersburg Times, questioned voters on whether they would support Cappelli, 36, given his views on a few of these social issues. It also asked whether Heller's age, 71, was a factor. The poll claimed a margin of error of 4.9 percent.

But some observers dismissed the poll, which gave Heller a 31-point lead after voters learned about the candidates' differences, as nothing more than a "push poll" that was not credible.

"I just have real difficulty believing that that's where the electorate in House District 52 is at this time," said Darryl Paulson, a professor of government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

Paulson, a registered Republican who is often called on to provide unbiased election analysis in his role as a government professor, said voters are less concerned about social issues and more concerned with the insurance and property tax crisis.

"If (Heller) starts talk about stem cells and machine guns, I think it will be disastrous for his campaign because I don't think it's an issue that people want to hear about," Paulson said. "I think it's going to be who is better able to deal with property insurance issues."

Both candidates have focused on that problem, with Heller pledging to do battle against insurance companies that cherry-pick auto and life insurance policies (he even has a cable ad running about it). Cappelli, for his part, has offered solutions based on a state catastrophe fund that would draw private insurance companies back into the state.

Cappelli says his background in finance and law (he has an MBA and a law degree) makes him best suited to deal with the state's problems with insurance and property taxes. He has already asked the Republican leadership to place him on the Insurance Committee if he's elected.

Heller points out he is a better consensus builder, someone who has solved problems before, and he would work with both Democrats and Republicans to solve the problem. He has led a citizens group that supported a successful tax referendum to give Pinellas County teachers pay raises and was instrumental in the push to save Sunken Gardens.

"He's someone who really does get things done, in my opinion," said Sue Brody, president and chief executive of Bayfront Health Systems. "He's a very collaborative kind person, and he invests the time necessary to really get into an issue, to understand it."

Judithanne Scourfield McLauchlan, an assistant professor of political science and director of the Center for Civic Engagement at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, pointed out that the race is one of the most contested in the state and drawing lots of attention from outside District 52.

"It would appear Angelo does have the ability to attract large donors and the Republican state committee to help his campaign, and I think ... Bill is raising checks in smaller increments," said McLauchlan, a registered Democrat. "I think he's served on so many boards and with so many charities, and I think his appeal is broader than the Democratic base."

Cappelli raised $65,000 in the first two weeks of September, including almost $35,000 from the Republican Party of Florida. Heller raised $12,400 in that same time frame.

[Last modified September 30, 2006, 06:02:17]

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