By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 8, 2000
BROOKSVILLE -- Democrats swept into the Hernando County Commission on Tuesday, leaving the policymaking board without a Republican member despite a 3,000-person GOP majority among registered voters.
In commission District 1, Democrat Betty Whitehouse bested Republican Janey Baldwin, 54.3 percent to 45.7 percent. She replaces two-term incumbent Pat Novy, whom she beat in the October runoff.
In commission District 3, Democrat Diane Rowden squeaked by Republican Carey Carlson, winning 50.8 percent of the vote. She takes the seat being vacated by Bobbi Mills, who lost to Carlson in the September primary.
Democrat Mary Coyne Aiken defeated Republican William "Alonzo" Merritt, taking 52.7 percent of the vote and overcoming Merritt's spending advantage of more than 20 to 1. Aiken will serve in the seat held by Paul Sullivan, who lost to Merritt in the October runoff.
Baldwin, 71, poured more than $40,000 of her own money into her campaign, ending with a massive direct mailing effort in the season's waning days. She targeted Whitehouse as a creature of Regional Healthcare Inc., which wants to move Brooksville Regional Hospital out of Brooksville.
The county owns the building and the bed certificates from the state, which will place the commission in the mix of the decisions to be made. Baldwin attempted to cast herself as the independent voice. Whitehouse, 61, is human resources director for Regional Healthcare.
"One of the things that really worked against her was she sent out that negative flier," said Whitehouse, who plans to resign Thursday.
Whitehouse attributed her win to talking to people about their issues.
Rowden, 51, in her third bid for commission, had no primary opposition and spent months bolstering her base. She helped organize seniors to battle for HMO service, visited groups repeatedly and cast herself as the people's voice.
Carlson, 45, the owner-operator of a ready-mix concrete company, offered himself as a professional who uses business principles to make decisions. Like Rowden, Carlson touted his own credentials and issues for most of the race.
In the last week, however, Carlson went negative. He attacked Rowden for having broken the state open meetings law while she served on the county School Board in 1990. Gov. Lawton Chiles suspended Rowden, and the state Senate refused her bid for reinstatement.
Instead of being cowed, Rowden apologized. Not for herself, but for Carlson's decision to go down the attack path. His move seems to have backfired.
"Maybe if he had stayed positive the numbers would have been different," Rowden said. "Maybe I need to thank him."
She said she plans to represent the general public. "We all got together and proved that the people of Hernando County need a voice, and I'm it."
Aiken, 73, the retired owner of the Rags to Riches consignment shop, got into the District 5 race because of one issue, an added homestead exemption for low-income seniors. Without a primary opponent, she garnered almost no attention while Merritt picked up steam as he defeated Sullivan and collected thousands of dollars.
She made jokes more than policy statements and raised little money. Her campaign was minuscule.With a week to go, Aiken seemed to benefit from Merritt's misfortune. The state and county ordered Merritt, 53, to stop building homes, stating he did not have the proper certification, license or insurance.
Merritt turned his attention to his business, trying to clear up the matter before election day. He settled his issues only Monday, but voters rejected his bid.
"I'm giddy," Aiken said as she watched results come in. "I'm happy about it. . . . I didn't expect it."
She said she figured her humor helped her win, as people felt comfortable talking with her. "I think it's something people remembered," Aiken said.
That humor could help lighten up commission meetings, she said, adding quickly, "but I don't want to do anything that disrupts the business of the commission."