Justice claims victory

Democrat says voters, fed up with negative campaigning, made a statement.

Published November 8, 2006

Democrat Charlie Justice overcame a barrage of negative advertising and appeared to defeat Republican Kim Berfield for the District 16 state Senate seat Tuesday.

“It’s a great relief,’’ Justice said. “We had so many people who worked so hard to get our message out; I’m as happy for my volunteers and workers as I am for me.’’

He said voters sided with his stands on such pocketbook issues as rising homeowners insurance premiums and phone rates. He also said the Republican Party’s negative campaigning, which portrayed him as soft on predators and cozy with the insurance industry, actually hurt Berfield.

“Maybe there’s a lesson to be learned for all of us. Sometimes the attacks cross a certain line and they go too far,’’ Justice said.

The race seesawed all night. By 11:15 p.m., Justice had 51.4 percent of the vote — a margin too small to compel Berfield to concede. She cited varying reports about how many absentee ballots remained to be counted.

She said the closeness of the race showed “both of our messages truly resonated.”

She said she looks forward to serving the community, whether it’s as a senator or a citizen.

Berfield led the tight race in western Hillsborough County, which contains about one-third of the district’s voters, but she lost in Pinellas County, which made the difference.

The race pitted two Pinellas-based state representatives against each other in a district that is virtually evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, giving each a real chance of winning. The candidates themselves raised more than a combined $1-million, and their parties poured in thousands more.

The Florida Republican Party ran early ads that portrayed Justice as taking insurance money and siding with the industry, even though Berfield was named the industry’s state representative of the year and at one point received more than 15 times as much in insurance contributions as Justice.

The Justice campaign complained and those commercials stopped, but aggressive campaigning raged on. In recent weeks, the state Republican Party ran commercials slamming Justice for voting against a bill requiring regular criminal background checks for school employees, saying, “Liberal extremist Charlie Justice voted to put the rights of pedophiles and sexual predators ahead of protecting our kids.’’

Justice denounced the “baseless, extreme attacks’’ in a press conference Saturday, saying “there’s a line of taste, a line of decency she’s crossed.”

Justice had less firepower — he raised $229,190 cash by Nov. 2, compared with $893,199 for Berfield — but the

Democrats fought back with their own attacks, saying “Kim Berfield Was Caught on Tape Voting for Her Bill 4 Times!’’ They called her the “darling of the insurance industry’’ and claimed she voted to raise homeowners’ insurance rates more than 70 percent.