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Enough cash to wine, dine every voter

By ALICIA CALDWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 19, 2000


Think about this:

89,000 pieces of direct mail.

37,000 yard signs.

59,000 phone bank calls.

All that is what $134,000 will buy this election season, according to the typical prices. And that's how much Frank Farkas, a Republican running for the District 52 state House seat has raised so far for his re-election bid.

State campaign finance records show he is among the top 15 House candidates in raising money, more than any House candidate in Pinellas.

His opponent, Democrat Margo Fischer isn't far behind with $98,000 in her campaign account.

Now think of all of it being dumped into a district that's roughly 7 square miles just north of downtown St. Petersburg and has about 68,000 registered voters.

"You have two different people who have the ability to raise money," explained Jack Hebert, a political consultant working for Farkas. "The races are expensive, and that's what it takes."

Hebert, who calls himself something of a statistical wonk, said that when you put it in perspective, it really isn't that much money. In 1998, he said, people in this country spent less on politics than more mundane things -- say, frozen yogurt.

"Couldn't we spend more per capita on politics than we do on frozen yogurt?" Hebert asked.

And it isn't over yet.

Political veterans say it's reasonable to expect that last-minute donations will double those figures. And that doesn't include the soft money spending by the parties on such things as polling, television commercial production and direct mail consultants.

"What you see on the surface is only part of it," said political consultant Mary Repper, who is not working for either candidate. "You could take everyone in the district out to a nice dinner and a bottle of wine. It's gotten obscene."

And where, precisely is all this cash coming from?

Most of Fischer's money has come in small increments from St. Petersburg people who've been active in politics and civics for years -- people who, the Farkas camp point out -- know Margo's politically powerful husband, Mayor David Fischer. Less than 10 percent comes from political action committees and industry groups, but the Democratic Party has given her nearly $14,000.

A look at Farkas' money shows that more than half comes from political action committees, consultants and professional groups, nearly all of them based outside the district.

We're talking groups like the Beer Distributors Committee for Good Government, in Tallahassee; Panhandle Consultants, in Panama City; and the Florida State Pilots Association, in Miami. Each gave Farkas $500. In addition, the Republican Party gave him nearly $6,400.

It has to make you wonder: All of this for a job that pays about $28,000 a year?

* * *

Some notes from the campaign trail:

YEAH, BUT DOES HE DANCE? Note to self: Do not give St. Petersburg Times columnist Howard Troxler a ride to Tiger Bay again. First let me say this. Howard is one of my favorite people in the newsroom. But driving him to Tiger Bay means waiting for him afterward as he holds court among political junkies. It would be a lot like visiting a middle school with one of the Backstreet Boys. Political people love Howard. They want to talk to him. Introduce themselves to him. And he is polite to each and every one of them.

HAT PATROL: Hey, Pat Baker, what's up with the hat? For those of you who didn't catch her at Tiger Bay, the candidate for Pinellas Supervisor of Elections was wearing a 2-foot tall baker's cap. You know, one of those things that looks like an exhaust vent for an attic fan. She looked like one of those real estate agents posing for a goofy ad. Baker wore it into the Tiger Bay forum at the Lyceum, and even up on the dais when she sat next to her opponent, Deborah Clark, who graciously refrained from taking the easy poke at her. A couple of people asked Baker about the hat and she said that maybe people would remember it, associate it with her name and vote for her in the primary on Sept. 5. So much for dignity in the political process.

FILING FOR RAMONA: Ramona Updegraff, Republican candidate for County Commission District 6, is handing out the most unusual campaign accessory I've seen this political season -- an emery board emblazoned with her name. It's red, white and blue and works in the usual fashion. Points for creativity.

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