Would-be commissioners mark contrasts
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 29, 2000
In their primary election campaigns, Hernando County Commission candidates Betty Whitehouse and Janey Baldwin had an easy target in two-term Democratic incumbent Pat Novy.
Democrat Whitehouse and Republican Baldwin each tagged Novy as frivolous, wasteful and ineffective. The time had come to bring respectability back to District 1, they contended, and each offered herself as the best choice in her party.
Whitehouse presented herself as a professional businesswoman with expertise in management, budgeting and problem-solving. Baldwin promoted herself as an informed activist with the government experience needed to be successful.
Baldwin easily snatched the Republican nod from challenger Anna Liisa Covell. Baldwin grabbed 53 percent of the vote.
And Whitehouse dispatched Novy in a runoff during which Novy's chances seemed to implode when she challenged the results of the first primary that she won, just not by enough to claim victory outright.
As October rolled around, Baldwin and Whitehouse suddenly found themselves lacking their easy shot. Without Novy to attack, their campaign themes started to sound similar.
Both supported water conservation efforts and initiatives to bring clean industry to Hernando County. Both called for improved services for senior citizens, and both wanted to review the planning that drives the county's multimillion-dollar residential road-repair program. Both promised to bring decorum back to a contentious commission.
In fact, when one spoke first at a forum, the other often found herself rising only to agree, perhaps offering an extra detail or fact but little more.
The struggle, it appeared, was to find ways to distinguish themselves from one another.
A matter of experience and loyalty to a hospital
Baldwin, 71, began taking swings at Whitehouse, 61, for her employment with Brooksville Regional Hospital and its parent company, Regional Healthcare Inc. The company wants to move the hospital out of Brooksville, and the commission will have to approve any deal because the county owns the buildings and the state bed permits for both Brooksville Regional and Spring Hill Regional hospitals.
"If this hospital moves, it's going to have a devastating impact on Brooksville," Baldwin said. "To say "I'm going to resign' doesn't cut it. . . . If I worked for somebody as many years as she's worked for them, I couldn't be disloyal. . . . She's a hospital candidate."
A retiree who has spent more than $35,000 of her own money on her campaign, Baldwin says she has no such commitment and would be able to look at the issue objectively.
"That's a big one because actually it affects the entire county," Baldwin said. "I don't want to hurt Brooksville. I don't want to hurt the east side of the county."
Whitehouse, human resources director for Regional Healthcare, defended herself vigorously.
"I have only worked for this company for 21/2 years," she said. "I have also worked for its competitors. Yes, I have friends there, but I still would vote my conscience."
She suggested Baldwin's comments illustrated a lack of understanding about today's society. People change jobs all the time, Whitehouse said, and they take their independence with them.
Whitehouse then focused on her own traits as a manager and mental health care professional. Those positions have taught her to listen and learn, using all the information she has to make a good decision, she said.
She noted that she has created, budgeted and run programs, taught ethics courses and led strategic planning initiatives.
Baldwin does not have that type of experience, she said. Perhaps Baldwin has better knowledge of the current issues facing the commission, Whitehouse acknowledged, but only because she is independently wealthy and has the time to spend in the community.
Some people need a job to make ends meet, Whitehouse said, and the time to campaign and learn about issues must be carved from non-working hours.
"I'm the reasonable choice," Whitehouse said. "I have a very good education and background. . . . I don't have all the answers, but I'm open to explore."
Baldwin fired back that she has listened to Hernando County residents as a volunteer for 12 years. She referred to her work to preserve park land in Istachatta, her service on numerous public committees and her past elected office in suburban St. Louis as examples of her ability to serve the community well.
A regular in the commission audience, Baldwin has spoken out about water preservation efforts, the county's contract with Corrections Corporation of America and several other topics.
"It concerns me that Betty had to hire a consultant to learn what the issues are," Baldwin said. "That tells me she's not ready to be a commissioner."
Whitehouse laughed about that comment and said she has used Vince Vanni for marketing advice, not to write her platform.
Of health care and managing growth
On the campaign trail, Whitehouse uses her expertise in and knowledge of health care and related issues. The topics resonate with the people she meets.
In the Estates subdivision east of Mariner Boulevard, Dave Gottwald and Jay Shaffer engaged Whitehouse in a lively 15-minute discussion about health insurance as she went door-to-door. "Are you going to be doing some pushing to get things resolved?" asked Gottwald, a retired stockbroker who said he was burned in the recent HMO crisis.
"I certainly promise you I'll stay on top of what's going on so we're not broadsided again," Whitehouse responded.
As their talk went on along these lines, she remarked, "What you're talking about are some of the reasons I decided to run. . . . I thought I might be able to do more from the other side."
The men said they enjoyed the conversation and encouraged her to keep up the fight.
"I normally don't like it because I feel badgered," Gottwald said of political visits to his home. "But I'm glad I was out here. I'm glad to discuss the issues."
Up the street, the conversations were the same. Hearing Whitehouse worked for the hospitals, folks wanted to bend her ear about prescriptions costs, hospital stays and HMOs. Whitehouse acknowledged many of the topics are not under the commission's control, but she noted that as a commissioner, she could push for attention to these and other senior citizen concerns.
She offered her phone number and promised to be accessible and independent. She also admitted having never run for office before.
That didn't faze them a bit. One woman responded, "That's all right. Some of the best people in office had never run before."
Heading back to her car after an hour of visits, Whitehouse said the one-on-one meetings are her best chance to win votes. That's why she hits a different neighborhood each afternoon, when possible.
By listening to the community, she said, she can learn what items are most important for the commission to confront.
Baldwin gains her support with a more detailed conversation about issues.
Speaking to the local chapter of the AARP on Thursday, Baldwin said she had run a family business in Missouri and she knows how to meet a payroll and serve the public. She then launched into a list of topics she wants to tackle as a commissioner, top among them "managing growth without sacrificing resources or quality of life."
She mentioned her independence from Brooksville Regional Hospital without mentioningWhitehouse and promised to be "a leader you can trust and have confidence in."
In other talks, Baldwin has called for reviews of the county's road repaving program and the county code enforcement operation. For new initiatives, she wants to seek a grant that would allow for the construction of a community center that would serve seniors during the day, youths at night and everyone as a shelter during emergencies.
At the AARP meeting, Charlotte Brown sought out Baldwin at her lunch table to say she enjoyed the speech.
"She's a very settling person," Brown said of Baldwin. "She sounds believable, like it's coming from the heart."
Anita Barrall said she had seen Baldwin on television speaking to commissioners and liked her style.
"I just feel she's a very intelligent person, the way she articulates with her speech and communication," Barrall said. "She gets to the point and doesn't beat around the bush. . . . I just feel she can do the job."
The two candidates each predict a win in a tight race. Style, perhaps more than substance, could carry the day, they said, when voters make their decision on Nov. 7.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111