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Column

Taking on incumbent, taking off the gloves

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Tallahassee Bureau Chief
Published January 19, 2008


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Imagine the gall of somebody actually forcing a state legislator to defend his seat in an election.

Florida's rigged system of entrenched incumbents is built to crush any challenger. Most incumbents hold carefully drawn districts while floating on a sea of special interest money.

That's why what happened this week quickly extinguished the bipartisan camaraderie in the Senate and appears certain to poison the atmosphere with the 2008 session six weeks away.

Former Sen. Skip Campbell, a Democrat and unsuccessful 2006 nominee for attorney general, announced a comeback bid against Republican Sen. Jeff Atwater, who has been chosen by his GOP colleagues to be the next Senate president if his party, as expected, stays in control. Atwater's district straddles Palm Beach and Broward counties.

"The temperature of the Senate just went up another 20 degrees," said Democratic Sen. Dave Aronberg of Greenacres.

In the short run, nobody will feel the heat more than Aronberg.

The eye-for-an-eye rule of two-party politics means Republicans now must recruit a well-funded candidate to try to take out Aronberg. His cross-state district is one of the few that's highly competitive for both parties.

Two lobbyists, both speaking without attribution for fear of retribution, complained of heavy-handed Republican tactics, including threats of punishment if they or their clients donate money to Aronberg or Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando.

Democratic Sen. Steve Geller gave a speech Thursday and said the same thing but didn't name names.

"The majority of the Republican leadership have been calling the lobbyists and not only asking for contributions, which I have to tell you is perfectly acceptable, but saying, 'If you give to the Democrats, we're going to kill you,'^" Geller said at the Associated Press' annual pre-session editors' seminar.

Atwater called Geller's comments, "Beyond shameful," and said he never threatened any lobbyist. He said Democrats are to blame for targeting Republican senators such as Mike Fasano of New Port Richey.

"There will never be any association between fundraising and policymaking," Atwater said.

Campbell has to be taken seriously, if for no other reason than he's a trial lawyer with a net worth north of $10-million.

Considering the Republicans' superiority at fundraising, he may need to spend all of it to battle Atwater, who in his first race beat Bob Butterworth, who was ending his long career as attorney general. But Atwater had a barrel of money and Jeb Bush's coattails. Campbell will be on a ballot with Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.

Longtime lobbyist Bob Levy said lobbyists know Atwater and his allies will be looking at campaign reports to see who gives to Campbell, Aronberg and Siplin.

So much for the "freedom of expression" argument about campaign money that politicians trot out whenever somebody dares to suggest shutting off the soft-money spigot.

Even if Campbell were to beat Atwater, it's virtually impossible for Democrats to pick up the six more seats they would need to regain a majority. If Atwater loses, the GOP caucus would pick a new president who would likely administer swift punishment to Campbell's supporters.

"So even if Skip wins, you still lose," Levy said.

It all sounds ominous. After all, senators have the broader institutional knowledge of most policy issues.

A dysfunctional election-year Senate would be a terrible thing for Florida, and it's all because some guy is running for office.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.

[Last modified January 18, 2008, 23:19:15]


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