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Intense primary battles carve commission races

All three incumbents face strong, well-funded challengers. And verbal swings already spice two of the events.


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 31, 2000

The signs are up, debate times scheduled, candidate slates cemented.

After months of preparations, contenders for three Hernando County Commission seats are working in the hopes that the county's 37,155 registered Democrats and 39,816 registered Republicans are paying attention.

And unlike four years ago, when the only incumbent seeking re-election faced no primary opposition, all three sitting commissioners have strong, well-funded challengers seeking to oust them in their party and also from the other side.

Depending how the candidates behave, the primary elections can bolster their chances or damage their electability, says Len Tria, a former county commissioner and frequent unpaid political adviser.

"You can tear each other up in primary fights and somebody else could be sitting on the sidelines who is not going through that," Tria noted. "They can come in and say, "I'm the reasonable one.' "

In District 3, for instance, incumbent Bobbi Mills squares off against newcomer Carey Carlson in the Republican race as unchallenged Democrat Diane Rowden, the veteran of several campaigns, can shore up her base while awaiting the general election. Mills and Carlson both profess they want to run a clean campaign, yet each has taken swings at the other in public forums.

District 5 incumbent Paul Sullivan has two Republican challengers -- William "Alonzo" Merritt and John Callaghan -- and mud has started flying in that race, too. As the Republicans fight toward what might end up in an October runoff, Democrat Mary Coyne Aiken hovers unopposed in the wings honing her "Send a Senior to the Board" message.

Two-term Commissioner Pat Novy, meanwhile, has two Democratic opponents -- Betty Whitehouse and Paul Weekley -- in her bid to continue serving District 1. She never has faced a primary challenge before. Two Republicans, Anna Liisa Covell and Janey Baldwin, also are running hard as Republicans to wrest the seat away.

Such intense primary battles could hurt the winners, said consultant Vince Vanni, who is working for Merritt and Carlson.

"I think it's going to be extremely difficult for some of these people to come back at the end of the primary and endorse the party ticket, especially when it's getting personal," Vanni said.

The best course of action, Tria said, is for candidates to stick to issues and offer specifics.

"You need to stay on message and not be sidetracked," Tria said. "The danger of the primary is getting dangerously sidetracked."

Covell agreed, saying personal attacks have no place in a campaign. Candidates had better be able to defend their positions and actions, though, because those are subject to careful review, she said.

"If I'm lucky enough to get to the general, it's going to be about the issues," Covell said. "And (Novy) has had some issues that have been with her all eight years."

Sullivan said he thinks incumbents have the greatest risk when running against people from the same political party. An incumbent has to defend his or her voting record, he said, while the challengers can make generic statements with no backup.

"There's always going to be a segment of the population that isn't going to like the way you vote," Sullivan said.

He then tossed out facts about his opponents' election participation, questioning their dedication to public service. Such potentially damning comments, and the threat of more to come, had Merritt defensive.

Already accused of defacing Sullivan's campaign signs, which he denied, Merritt has consulted a lawyer about how to respond to an expected Sullivan attack about a 1994 arrest during a domestic dispute with his wife that never resulted in charges. Merritt said he wants to have the truth come out now, rather than have to react to a surprise ad later.

"I'm going to stay a gentleman, just as I am," Merritt said. "I've been that way all my life, and I'm not about to change."

He said the incident took place during a difficult time in their marriage. His wife's father had been the victim of a homicide, he said, and their son suffered kidney failure that required two major surgeries.

"Our frustration with what was happening in our life led to a heated exchange that ended with law enforcement involvement," Merritt wrote in a news release late Friday. "The deputies who responded thought the situation could heat up again as soon as they left. They decided to make an arrest. Although I was arrested, I was never formally charged nor did the state of Florida decide to prosecute me."

Sullivan said he was aware of the arrest but had no intention of using it in the campaign.

"That's ridiculous," Sullivan said. "I don't need to discuss his personal life. There are too many issues to discuss." He called Merritt's statement about him "a desperate accusation."

In her first primary fight, Novy figured some attacks against her voting record -- and perhaps her style -- might occur. But she shrugged them off as political reality.

"It's their choice," Novy said. "If they wish to run, they should certainly have that option. I stand on my record. More than anything, some people have said I don't have a life. This job has been my life. I give it 500 percent. I'm proud of all I've accomplished."

Bickering enlightens no one, Callaghan contended. It does hurt candidates, though, especially those without the financial means to fight back, he said.

Televised debates help level the field, Callaghan said, but a three-minute prepared speech hardly presents a complete picture.

Carlson, on the other hand, argued that candidates who successfully fend off attacks would enhance their position.

"I think whoever wins the primary will actually build momentum," Carlson said. "It will give that particular candidate credibility because they have fought in a tough race."

The primary elections take place Sept. 5. Runoffs would occur Oct. 3, and the general elections are scheduled for Nov. 7.

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