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Oh, yeah, the guy running against Ronda

It may be difficult to beat any Republican in District 10, but Stephen Gorham isn't a typical Democrat.

By BEN MONTGOMERY
Published October 8, 2006


PLANT CITY - The man who wants to beat Ronda Storms parts his hair on the side. He drives a Ford, attends Mass on Sundays and cuts his daughter's steak into tiny pieces on a plastic plate.

You've probably never heard of Stephen Gorham. That's because he's a normal 28-year-old who works at a regular job and has a regular family.

His biggest problem is that you haven't heard of him, because he's running for state Senate against a household name.

Ronda Storms easily won the Republican primary last month, beating an opponent who spent twice as much and was a state legislator for eight years.

Gorham raised less than half of what Storms raised. He has a fraction of the name recognition. And he has no political experience. None.

So what makes him think he can win?

To understand that, you have to hear the story about a killer from Alabama named David McCormack and his chance meeting with a 17-year-old boy in a Publix parking lot.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Gorham decided 18 months ago that he wanted to be a state senator.

But everything about Gorham's run says newcomer. A friend from high school manages the campaign. His mother is treasurer. He had a hard time convincing the state party he was even worth their help.

And those who know politics in this eastern Hillsborough County district that includes parts of Polk and Pasco counties knows this: Gorham's chances are not good.

"I think in this part of Hillsborough County ... it's pretty difficult to beat a Republican," Senate President Tom Lee said

Weekly Planet writer Wayne Garcia included Gorham on his list of 10 up-and-coming politicos who "could rock 2006," but he included the caveat that Gorham "will likely be underfunded and underexposed."

There are people, though, who think he's gaining momentum with his country-boy charm and blue-dog Democrat message. They like that he's not a politician, says hell and damn sometimes and carries a .40-caliber Glock. They like that he talks about helping regular folks and being a "front-porch Democrat," even if his house doesn't have one.

"He'll be able to draw some moderate republicans in that district," said Justin Day, executive director of the Florida Mainstream Democrats. "If he can just get his message out there, he'll have a good shot."

His message is this: I may be a Democrat, but I'm a lot like you.

Gorham got state Democrats' money and launched a television ad campaign that paints him as a moderate with conservative appeal: against abortion rights, pro gun, against amnesty for illegal immigrants. He also appears in his Navy uniform and says: "I stood up to the terrorists. I'll stand up to the developers, insurance companies and special interests."

Standing "up to the terrorists" meant working on computer networks at a naval base in Bahrain, he says. Of the wording in the television ad, he said, "I am not a combat veteran ... I was never in Iraq." But he added that he is not uncomfortable with any of his statements.

Another Gorham theme: Guns are good.

"I like guns," he said. "I like shooting."

He says on his Web site that he's a proud member of the National Rifle Association. Florida NRA representative Marion Hammer said Gorham joined the group in May, long after he announced his candidacy.

Hammer said it's not unusual for a number of office seekers to join the NRA. "We don't encourage candidates to join," she said. "Be who you are."

Gorham is endorsed by the Florida AFL-CIO and labor groups whose members will work phone banks for him in the coming weeks.

Still, even Gorham know's he is the definition of underdog, and that brings us back to that night in the grocery store parking lot.

February 1996. Gorham, 17, is a bag boy at the Publix in Lakeland. He's collecting carts after dark and spots a man and woman struggling.

The woman needs help. The questions race. Should I mind my own business? Call the cops from the safety of the store? Let someone else handle it?

The boy steps closer. Through the parking lot freeze-frame moves the blade of a knife.

What Gorham doesn't know is that David McCormack was convicted of manslaughter in Alabama years before for killing a neighbor with a rake.

Closer.

Nor does he know that the man attacked a little girl earlier that day and would stab two prostitutes before he was caught.

Closer.

Nor does Gorham know that the decision he makes will be a life-changing moment, a set of circumstances burned into his head that he'll think about every time he considers running or standing his ground, no matter the consequences.

Gorham starts hollering. He tells the man, within arm's reach now, that the police are coming and that if he knows what's best for him, he'd better leave.

And the man runs.

A Lakeland Ledger reporter asked Gorham back then why he did what he did.

"Something needed to be done," Gorham said. "And I did it."

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or 813-661-2443.