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District 50 seat race getting muddier

In the final days of the campaign, the candidates are taking aim at each other.

By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 6, 2000


CLEARWATER -- Compared with the mudslinging in some other local races, the campaign between the two inexperienced politicians vying for the Florida House District 50 seat mostly has been a snoozer.

But Democrat Ava VanNahmen and Republican Kim Berfield have picked up the pace in the past two weeks with a blitz of new mailings to voters. And Berfield, who has nearly twice as much money to spend, even has produced a television commercial.

Both women said Friday that they tried to keep the race positive.

"I think voters want that," said VanNahmen, a 45-year-old marketing consultant who has a master's degree in public administration from the University of South Florida. "Voters are very intelligent, and they want to know the issues and the backgrounds of the people running."

Berfield, 29, an events coordinator for the Contractors and Builders Association of Pinellas County, said she too has stuck to issues.

"My campaign's focused on the people, and the people said they wanted to talk about issues, and so that's what we focused in on," Berfield said.

But both candidates accused the other of making a final negative attack just before Election Day. Berfield's latest mailing implies that VanNahmen supports a state income tax and an Internet tax -- stands that VanNahmen says she has not taken.

VanNahmen has said the Internet should not be taxed for at least another two years, and then the issue can be debated again as the new medium evolves. She has said the state's tax structure always merits scrutiny and debate, but she has never called for a state income tax.

VanNahmen also questioned why Berfield would try to point out that she supports some equal rights for gay people, like the right to be counted as "family" and visit a dying partner in the hospital. The issue has not been a cornerstone of the campaign.

"It's a fairly weak piece," VanNahmen said, bristling at the idea that she is "out of step" with local beliefs, as Berfield contends.

"She says I'm out of step?" VanNahmen said."She lives at home with her parents and does not pay a mortgage, and has never put a child on a school bus."

Berfield's recent publicity blitz also has involved a television commercial and several other mailings. One portrays her as an advocate for better schools, with "smaller class size, better pay and incentives to keep our best teachers teaching and recruit new ones."

Another casts her as an environmentalist who has worked to preserve Weedon Island, by coordinating a fundraiser to build a boardwalk through the park on behalf of the Contractors and Builders Association of Pinellas County.

In two of the mailings, Berfield promises that she will protect Weedon Island from construction of a desalination plant nearby, although the project has been characterized as an unlikely location by consultants for the region's water utility, Tampa Bay Water.

The National Rifle Association also has sent local gun owners cards on behalf of Berfield, noting that she has the NRA's "A" rating and deserves their vote.

VanNahmen's campaign, meanwhile, has been more low-key. As of October campaign-finance reports, VanNahmen had raised $38,105 compared with Berfield's $64,900 -- so VanNahmen hasn't had a television budget.

Instead, she has run a phone bank and put out her own mail piece that focuses on the differences between the candidates. For instance, both women have pledged to focus on reducing class sizes and helping teachers. But VanNahmen notes Berfield also supports vouchers for public money to be spent on private schools -- and for private schools taking vouchers to face new state tests.

VanNahmen's mailing also states that although she would work to provide generic drugs for seniors, Berfield has taken contributions from medical companies.

Although VanNahmen would protect the environment, the mailing says, Berfield has taken contributions from real estate developers and contractors. Such development-oriented donations make up one-third of Berfield's funds, according to finance reports.

Berfield says people shouldn't worry about her ability to strike a balance between environmental concerns and development -- and she's annoyed that VanNahmen has tried to make that a campaign issue.

"I know that my opponent has talked about who I work with," Berfield said, alluding to the county builders association. "But if that's all she can talk about, why is she running?"

Both candidates have spent the final week canvassing neighborhoods, talking to voters.

VanNahmen says she is the more seasoned person in the race, although as a first-time candidate she sometimes has seemed ill at ease in interviews and candidate forums.

"I am a mother who has put children on a school bus," VanNahmen said. "I have worked through the issues of paying a mortgage, and I've worked through the issues of health care, and I'm a small businesswoman who went to night school at USF to study government."

In addition to support from the county's teacher union, VanNahmen has been endorsed by some typically Republican-leaning groups: the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Pinellas County Council of Firefighters.

But Berfield says she's more in touch with voters.

"The most important part of the campaign has been that we focused on people. We've taken the time, over the last year, to walk precincts, talk to the people, listen to what their issues and concerns are, and that's going to be evident come next Tuesday."

Berfield also accuses VanNahmen of going negative.

VanNahmen's Internet page takes Berfield to task for "thoughtless conduct" in the filming of an ad that resulted in the forced resignation of a county employee. In the ad the employee is shown walking with Berfield at Weedon Island -- an apparent contradiction to county rules forbidding employees from political activity.

The issue is now under review after Pinellas County Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd said this week that Thompson did not understand he was being filmed for a political ad.

"It's a shame that she would want to take what appears to be a miscommunication and actually try to benefit herself personally," Berfield said. "That speaks very poorly of her."

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