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Political foes plan rematch

District 61 is nearly evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, but no Democrat has ever held the seat.

By CHASE SQUIRES

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 31, 2000


DADE CITY -- With a rematch looming in the race for the state House District 61 seat, both candidates have vowed a clean race, but both stress their differences.

State Rep. Ken Littlefield, the Republican incumbent from Dade City just off his first term in office, calls himself a Tallahassee insider, a man of the party who will work with the House leadership.

Democrat Larry McLaughlin, trailing again in campaign fundraising, is an outsider. He has never held elective office and vows he will fight the establishment for the little guy, schools and small business.

Littlefield's coffers have swelled with out-of-town corporate money.

McLaughlin, 44, is waiting for help from his party, depending on mostly small donations and his family, although his latest campaign report began showing some labor and teachers union money.

Although District 61 is nearly evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, and was created by a Democratic Legislature in 1992, no Democrat has ever held the seat.

Littlefield won the seat in a special election over McLaughlin last year -- 54 percent of the votes to 41 percent, 3,245 votes to 2,477 -- after his brother, Carl, gave the seat up to accept an appointment by Gov. Jeb Bush.

Ken Littlefield, a 56-year-old former minister who operated a family-owned furniture store until last year, said he will stress his ties to Tallahassee. He said he is familiar with the workings of state government and is positioned to watch out for Pasco County's interests.

"What I will bring to the campaign, and will stress, is continuity," Littlefield said.

"Send me back, and I'll continue what we started," he said. "I don't run as an outsider. I don't run as somebody who is going to shake up the system. I want to work with leadership. I think I will be a better representative simply because of my relationship with the governor. I'm on a first-name basis. I've created a real comfort level with leadership, and because of that, there will be some assignments that will be made available to me that would not be made to Mr. McLaughlin."

Littlefield was one of two House members this month named to a statewide energy policy panel. He said that because he was elected in a special election, he will be allowed to serve an extra two years under term limit rules, giving him an added measure of seniority -- and the district an added measure of clout.

He said he will work to improve Florida's education system and wants to study health care and issues of growth, water needs and the protection of wetlands.

McLaughlin, in charge of program development at the University of South Florida, said he again expects to be at a financial disadvantage in the race, but will campaign face to face with voters to overcome it.

He said recent school reform efforts pegged to grading schools on standardized test performance are not working and said the tests need to be used to identify and help individual students, especially those from economically disadvantaged families.

He also thinks that lawmakers should play a bigger role in managing local growth and resources.

"Can we continue at the rate we are?" he asked. "My concern with our current Legislature is they'll tend to favor the development industry and its desire to continue with few constraints. We really need to have smarter planning and growth management."

He said he supports small business and has the backing of the state AFL-CIO labor union and the Central Labor Council.

Early campaign finance figures confirm McLaughlin may again be at a substantial financial disadvantage. Even though he was spared the expense of a primary, he lags behind Littlefield by $33,138 -- showing $14,131.96 in combined cash, loans and in-kind donations to Littlefield's $47,270 in cash.

Finance reports show nearly all of Littlefield's money is from out of town, including tobacco, Big Sugar, a Montana gambling equipment maker, alcohol and health care. His lone, listed Dade City donation is a $50 contribution by Schaper Construction. He also lists a $500 donation by the East Pasco Medical Center in Zephyrhills.

Littlefield said he has not started fundraising locally and has yet to ask anyone, local or otherwise, for money. He said he will begin fundraising soon, but will continue to ask the employers, instead of the employees, for financial support.

"That way, when I talk to the individual, we talk about issues, not money," he said. "Let the employer provide the money."

He said contributions do not buy his vote and that he would always vote in the district's interests.

McLaughlin reported loaning or donating $2,000 of his family's money to his campaign. He has also accepted numerous $25 and $50 contributions from east Pasco residents, including former Dade City Commission candidate Steve Van Gorden, Commissioner Eunice Penix and former Mayor Charles McIntosh.

McLaughlin also reported donations from teachers associations and labor unions.

McLaughlin said he expects some Democratic Party money but said he has been frustrated by what he sees as a lock Republicans have put on many political contributions. McLaughlin said at least one political action committee official told him Republican leadership warned against providing too much support to Democrats.

When he lost the first time, only 7.4 percent of the District 61 voters showed up for the special election. Turnout this time, with a presidential election on the line, is expected to be better.

McLaughlin nearly faced a Democratic challenge, which would have forced a primary, from 38-year-old Plant City resident Johnnie Cooper Jr. Cooper never made a blip on the Pasco County political radar before failing to qualify.

In their first go-round, Littlefield outspent McLaughlin $88,115 to $7,281, and Littlefield said he spent and campaigned aggressively right up to the end, sending out direct mailings as if he was behind in the polls all along.

It's a strategy he says he will employ again and said he does not take McLaughlin lightly.

"I respect Mr. McLaughlin," Littlefield said. "I think he's an honorable man. I think his intentions are pure. The opposition certainly gives opportunity for debate, which gives the people a choice of policy and principles."

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