For a better Legislature
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 24, 2000
Kathy Castor is a promising new face in politics this year. She offers a bright, articulate and moderate voice on a range of issues state lawmakers have politicized, from education and environmental policy to campaign reform and growth management. Castor's depth and personal skills would make her an effective state senator for Hillsborough and Pasco counties.
Castor, 34, is a Democrat, Tampa attorney and mother of two. She has deep ties in the community and valuable insight into public education; her mother, Betty, was Florida's education commissioner and the president of the University of South Florida. Castor is a graduate of Emory University and the Florida State University College of Law. Following graduation, she worked three years at the state Department of Community Affairs, enforcing Florida's growth management laws.
Castor's balanced view toward managing growth, commitment to the environment and grasp of regional water policy are well suited for the problems of Senate District 13, which covers Hillsborough and Pasco, including the neighborhoods of south Tampa, Town 'N Country, Carrollwood, Lutz, Odessa and parts of west Pasco and Land O' Lakes. She makes education a priority of her campaign. Castor wants to expand pre-K programs, increase school funding and create new partnerships between colleges and universities and private industry. She wants to give patients more power to deal with managed-care companies and supports new state spending for long-term care.
Her opponent, Republican Victor Crist, spent eight years in the Florida House. He is a hard-working legislator who focused on crime and neighborhood redevelopment. Crist is generally more supportive of the public schools and the environment than many of his Republican colleagues. But Crist has a personality flaw that drives him, at times, toward the extreme. His grandstanding on the death penalty has been unseemly, and his attempt to weaken the independence of the Florida courts shows disdain for views he opposes. His prickly nature should be a campaign issue, for it would diminish his effectiveness in the collaborative workings of the Florida Senate.
Castor has the knowledge and the people skills to promote the interests of the district. Her community service on behalf of battered women, the Lowry Park Zoo and local educational and environmental groups give her the grounding to become an effective voice in Tallahassee. She also has the strength to bring the legislative delegation together to better represent the Tampa Bay area. Castor is the sort of candidate communities produced before money corrupted the political process. For Senate District 13, the Times strongly recommends Kathy Castor.
Rep. Heather Fiorentino's favorite number is 23. It's the size of her 1998 election plurality over incumbent Democrat Debra Prewitt in the race for the state House District 46 covering western Pasco County.
Now, two years later, rather than being vulnerable politically because of a slim margin of victory, Fiorentino, R-New Port Richey, is considered close to invincible. The Democratic Party scrambled to find a last-minute candidate to challenge Fiorentino, an indication of her strong freshman-term performance and growing popularity.
Her success is attributable to her independence. Fiorentino, a teacher, voted against the governor's A Plus plan for education. She opposes vouchers and said the state's emphasis on a standardized test performance plan is misplaced. She also differed with House leaders by voting against a bill to gut growth management controls and the Land Title Protection Act, a measure that would have allowed private citizens to stake claim to publicly owned waterfront land.
But her legislative career shouldn't be judged solely on what she opposed. She successfully sponsored legislation to prohibit future sewer discharge into Pasco's coastal water, and she has been a leading advocate for the customers of Lindrick Service Corp., a privately owned and environmentally troubled utility in west Pasco.
And with the median age of District 46 residents listed as the oldest in the state, Fiorentino has been prominent working with Department of Elder Affairs Secretary Gema Hernandez on senior issues.
Fiorentino's opponent, Carlene Hobbs, contends she will be friendlier to the environment, to children and to senior citizens than the incumbent. It's a tall order.
Hobbs, making her first run for public office, is one of the core group of citizen activists who successfully challenged U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's cleanup plan for the former Stauffer chemical plant in Tarpon Springs. She also opposes the Buccaneer natural gas pipeline proposed to enter Florida near her Holiday home at Anclote.
A self-educated artist and sculptor, Hobbs lists quality-of-life issues such as more pocket parks, better sidewalks, roads and school safety as top concerns for the district. Such an agenda might be more suitable for a locally elected office.
The Times recommends Fiorentino.
It's a shame no Democrat stepped forward to wage a real campaign against Republican incumbent Rob Wallace. His anti-government rhetoric and environmental record are out of synch with this moderate and growing middle-class district. Still, Wallace does his constituent work for residents of District 47, which includes portions of Carrollwood and Odessa in northwest Hillsborough and the northern part of Pinellas County, including Tarpon Springs.
Wallace, 48, is an environmental engineer elected to office in 1994. He is highly regarded within the district for his accessibility, and he generally avoids the demagoguery of many Republican House leaders. Wallace's support for a private-sector land grab and his willingness to undermine growth management regulations ill-served the congested district he represents. Wallace also opposed mandatory pool fences and requiring children to wear bike helmets as undue government burdens.
Democrat Monte Belote, 40, a longtime consumer activist, hasn't shown a commitment to the job. Belote, who served briefly last year as chairman of Hillsborough's Democratic Party, likely would be a progressive voice, given the agenda he championed during nine years as director of the Florida Consumer Action Network. But Belote has disappointed Democrats by not running a serious campaign. His lackluster performance is not an encouraging sign in a potential representative for the district.
Wallace's dedication to the job, his seniority and ability to work with local governments in Hillsborough and Pinellas help blunt a poor legislative record. The Times recommends him.
Ever since Peter Rudy Wallace vacated his state House seat in 1996, Democrat Margo Fischer and Republican Frank Farkas have been battling to represent the voters of District 52, which includes much of northeast St. Petersburg. In round one, Fischer, a financial adviser and education activist, pulled out a narrow victory. Two years later Farkas, a chiropractor, won by 1,623 votes. Now comes the rubber match, and each candidate has a record to stand on.
On issues voters should care about -- protecting the environment, supporting education and health care, protecting abortion rights and enhancing public safety without compromising due process or proportional justice -- Fischer's record is more reliable. To be fair, Farkas has built a generally moderate and constructive record. Farkas, 44, even broke ranks with the leadership in his own party by voting against two particularly noxious anti-environment bills, one that would have overhauled the Growth Management Act and the other that would have given away thousands of public acres of lake and river shorelines to private landowners.
However, Farkas has cast some disappointing votes. He was an avid supporter of a huge pension giveaway to police and firefighters. The unions for these city workers went to the Legislature to make gains they couldn't accomplish in collective bargaining, and Farkas, whose campaign had been generously supported by these unions, made sure he helped serve up the pork. Farkas also voted for the reciprocal concealed weapons law, allowing people who have permits to carry concealed weapons in other states to do so in Florida. And despite the state's top environmental regulator's assessment that air quality in our region fails to meet federal standards, Farkas voted to do away with emissions testing.
Fischer, 54, says improving Florida's schools is her top priority. She is an advocate of vocational educational opportunities, smaller class sizes in the lower grades and alternative schools for disruptive students. Fischer opposes any restrictions on abortion rights and supports school choice but only within the public school system. Both candidates say they oppose school vouchers, but Farkas went along with the governor's A Plus plan, which made Florida the first state in the nation to adopt a statewide voucher (or "opportunity scholarship") program.
Fischer, wife of St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer, was not known as the most effective of legislators during her short two-year tenure, and as a member of the minority in Tallahassee, she would not wield the kind of influence Farkas would as a member of the Republican majority. But we think Fischer at least has the right priorities. For that reason, the Times recommends her.
Despite her self-serving explanation for switching parties, the Republican incumbent, Rep. Sandy Murman, has effectively promoted causes that have appeal across party lines. She is a strong advocate for public health care and children's social services, and she generally has supported environmental protection. If she exerts more leadership, Murman could deliver an agenda that would broadly benefit her central Tampa district and the region.
Murman, 50, was elected as a Democrat in 1996 but quickly switched to the Republican Party. She has maintained her modest and sometimes progressive voice on health care and social issues, which reflects the working-class priorities of this economically mixed district. Murman's longtime community work and commitment to constituent service give her a grounding she brings to Tallahassee. Murman has a genuine interest in improving child welfare services. She brought the local delegation together to recognize the regional importance of Tampa General Hospital. And she joined Democrats in opposing a land-grab bill that would have put public land in private hands.
Lawyer Henry A. Gill Jr. entered the race late, after a fellow Democrat, Betsy McCoy Benedict, withdrew for personal reasons. Gill is an impressive candidate whose years as a naval officer, federal prosecutor and assistant attorney general in Florida underscore his commitment to public service. Gill touts his support for new school funding and universal pre-school. He differs with Murman not so much on substance but on the priorities he'd bring to office. With broader involvement in his community and more time to articulate a focused message, Gill could offer a formidable candidacy.
Murman's tendency to commercialize her work for children makes her intentions seem political and thus detracts from her appeal. But she has pursued a balanced agenda for District 56, which stretches from Seminole Heights to Gibsonton. If Murman shows strength in the leadership role she is poised to take, she could build bipartisan support for plans to better integrate health care and social services throughout the region. The Times recommends Sandra L. Murman.
There is no denying Rep. Ken Littlefield, R-Dade City, has grown from an unsure political neophyte replacing his popular younger brother to a more seasoned legislator representing House District 61, which stretches from Land O' Lakes to Plant City.
Littlefield is personable and stresses constituent service, but the former minister and furniture retailer rarely varies from the "less government, more freedom" mantra of the Republican Party's right wing. He displays limited leadership skills and maintains that a single lawmaker cannot make much of a difference in the legislative process.
Because he first ran in a special election in March 1999, Littlefield will be the senior member of the House in 2007 if he is successful in his re-election efforts. That long-term benefit is reason enough to support him, Littlefield contends.
But should voters have to wait four election cycles for a payoff? We don't think so.
Littlefield's Democratic opponent, Larry McLaughlin, is a familiar foe, having lost the special election to Littlefield less than two years ago. He has remained active since with the Pasco civic group Publicats that has focused public attention on growth management issues.
McLaughlin is director of program development for educational outreach at the University of South Florida, where he conducts market research to help academic departments chart new programs and class offerings. He has made education one of the top issues of his campaign and believes more resources should be going to the classrooms.
The candidates' differences can be illustrated by energy policies. Littlefield acknowledged he was put on the Florida Energy 2020 Study Commission, an issue in which he had little interest, because Republican leaders said he needed to broaden his horizons if he is to assume a future leadership role. McLaughlin would need no such prodding on energy and the environment. While a program director at West Virginia University, he researched alternative fuels and water pollution stemming from motorboats.
He is the preferable choice. The Times recommends McLaughlin.
Opportunity to reply
The Times offers candidates not recommended by its editorial board an opportunity to reply. Candidates in the races discussed today should send in their replies no later than 5 p.m. Thursday to: Philip Gailey, editor of editorials, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731. (E-mail: email@example.com; Fax: 893-8675). Replies are limited to 250 words.
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