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    Frugality marks House races

    Donations of $50 here, $20 there, and volunteers drive the campaign for the District 55 state House seat.

    By ALICIA CALDWELL

    © St. Petersburg Times, published August 28, 2000


    ST. PETERSBURG -- They knock on a lot of doors. They borrow phone lines from a friendly lawyer after hours. They welcome $50 campaign contributions, and rejoice when they get $500.

    The homespun texture of the District 55 state House race has everything to do with scarce campaign funds, and how the candidates find themselves relying on friends and the durability of their shoe leather to get the job done.

    Since 1982 -- the year single-member districts were created -- the seat has been held by an African-American. The district includes some of the poorest and most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in southern St. Petersburg, Manatee and Hillsborough counties.

    Together, candidates Frank Peterman Jr. and Earnest Williams, both Democrats, have raised less than $50,000. This in a climate where the District 52 House race, just a few miles to the north, is tooling along in the $225,000 range. Incumbent Republican Frank Farkas is running against Democrat Margo Fischer in that race.

    "They've raised that much money?" Williams said. "What are they going to spend it on?"

    In a word, professionals. The contestants in the big-money races pay for everything: consultants, phone banks and polls. In the low-budget races -- and certainly there are others in Pinellas County besides District 55 -- volunteers make it happen.

    Both Williams and Peterman say they have a core group of 30 or 40 volunteers willing to take on any job: Putting out yard signs, cooking hot dogs or phoning voters.

    "That's what I definitely like about our campaign," Peterman said. "These are common folks you see every day at the grocery store."

    Look at the campaign disclosures and you'll see those everyday people donating $20 or $50 to support their candidate.

    Nobedine Packer, a retired elementary school teacher, and her husband recently donated $25 to Williams' campaign. She said she knows Williams' wife; they are Delta Sigma Theta sorority sisters. She thinks a lot of Williams' character.

    "He's an honest man," Mrs. Packer said. "I think he would do a great job."

    Peterman has his share of grassroots supporters as well. Retired principal Leonard Summers gave Peterman $20 and his undying support.

    "I did it because I've known Frank since he was a youngster," said Summers, who was Campbell Park Elementary School's principal for 12 years before retiring in 1983. "No. 1, he's a man of great character. I know he has a lot to give to his district."

    To be sure, both campaigns also have received support from corporate St. Petersburg, political action committees and industry groups.

    Williams, who has raised $26,000, has received significant support from the insurance industry -- not surprising, because he owns a State Farm agency in St. Petersburg. He has received several $500 donations from political action committees, such as the Pinellas Police Benevolent Association and the Florida Professional Firefighters. He also has significant local support from smaller donors.

    Peterman, who has raised $21,000, has received a handful of $500 donations from political action committees, such as the Florida Certified Public Accountants, but his disclosure list is marked by $100 and $200 donations from developers and business people in St. Petersburg as well as smaller donations from people who live in the district and have known Peterman and his family for years.

    "I like the kind of financial support the (Peterman) campaign has received," said Lonnie Donaldson, who has long been active in Democratic politics, and is working to get Peterman elected. "It crosses the spectrum."

    Both candidates have been active in several arenas, and their diverse campaign disclosures are reflections of who they are.

    Peterman, 38, was born and raised in St. Petersburg and lived a life immersed in politics and civil rights. His father, Frank Peterman Sr., broke the color barrier in Pinellas County in 1966 when he won the Democratic primary for a state House seat. Peterman Sr., a Howard University law school graduate and lawyer who often took on cases involving civil rights issues, lost in the general election.

    Peterman's mother, Peggy Peterman, also was a Howard University law school graduate and for 31 years was a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for the St. Petersburg Times. She frequently wrote about civil rights issues.

    Frank Peterman Jr. was their first-born son, who went on to be the quarterback at Lakewood High School before going to Morehouse College, where he graduated in 1985 with a degree in English. He married in 1988, and he and his wife, June, have three children, ranging in age from 2 to 9. He is director of public affairs for Juvenile Alternative Services Program, an alternative education program for troubled teens.

    In 1993, he unsuccessfully challenged incumbent David Welch for the City Council seat representing many of St. Petersburg's black neighborhoods. Four years later, Peterman took the seat from Welch, a three-term incumbent, with 63 percent of the vote.

    On several occasions, Williams has said voters need to realize the difference between having respect for Peterman's family and voting for Peterman. He has said his maturity and business acumen make him a better choice for the seat.

    Williams, 53, was born and raised in Marianna, a small town in north Florida. He received a bachelor's degree in government from Florida State University in 1969. Four years later he married.

    Williams moved to St. Petersburg 28 years ago, and has held a variety of positions with St. Petersburg city government in the 1970s and 1980s, including administrative assistant to the city's park director. He is the owner of Earnest Williams State Farm Insurance Agency.

    He has been involved in a number of civic activities, including serving on several volunteer boards for the Pinellas school system. He also served on the city Nuisance Abatement Board for five years, two of them as president.

    Along with his unsuccessful City Council run in 1993, he ran unsuccessfully for the District 55 House seat in 1994. He and his wife, Armetha, live in the Lakewood neighborhood and have two grown daughters.

    Both candidates have resumes and experiences that have impressed community leaders who are watching the race.

    Lou Brown, chairman of the Coalition of African American Leadership Inc., said the race, which will be decided in the Sept. 5 primary, is heating up. More yard signs and campaign literature are appearing each day as the election draws near.

    He said he hopes that whoever is elected keeps in mind the concerns and issues important to African-Americans -- including job creation, civil rights and bringing home public dollars -- when that new representative goes to Tallahassee.

    "I think we're fortunate that we have two candidates who are as qualified as they are," Brown said. "Whoever gets the job, we hope they will bring resources to the community."

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