Voters in north Pinellas face familiar choice: Nehr or Zimmermann?
By Will Hobson, Times Staff Writer
For the third time in six years, northern Pinellas County roadways are lined with signs bearing the names "Nehr" and "Zimmermann."
The dynamics behind this year's race between Peter Nehr and Carl Zimmermann for state House of Representatives in District 65 are not much different than they were in 2006 and 2008, when the two ran against each other in old District 48.
Nehr, 60, a three-term incumbent, is again the favorite. He's a Republican in a right-leaning district that includes Palm Harbor, Tarpon Springs, Dunedin and parts of East Lake. Nehr, who easily bested three challengers in the August primary, has the fundraising advantage — more than $50,000 left in the bank after spending nearly $120,000 so far, according to campaign filings with the state Division of Elections. Zimmermann, 61, has about $7,700 left of the roughly $17,000 he's raised.
But Zimmermann, a journalism teacher at Countryside High School, has faced this uphill battle before. A former Republican and now a self-described moderate Democrat, Zimmermann captured 48.4 percent of the vote in 2006 and 49 percent in 2008, when less than 1,400 votes out of more than 70,000 cast separated the two men.
Nehr wants two more years in office before he is term-limited out. He wants to work with the Republican leadership to address statewide issues like property insurance and the economy, and he wants to explore sponsoring health-conscious bills dealing with food labeling and school playgrounds.
Zimmermann thinks he has the answers Nehr lacks on the biggest challenges facing Florida. And while he can talk issues all day long, Zimmermann believes his best path to victory is to remind voters of what he feels are Nehr's negatives — among them two bankruptcies and Nehr's former venture into the controversial Internet sweepstakes cafe industry.
"I'm not really a negative person," Zimmermann said. "But in 2008, they ran a TV commercial against me saying I support a state income tax, which is just not true at all. And yet he has all these real negatives that are true, that are documented."
To Nehr, the approach is a sign of desperation from a man he calls the "perennial candidate." Zimmermann also ran for state House in 1992, as a Republican, and lost in the primary.
"Instead of sticking to the issues," Nehr said, "he is trying to use a smear campaign to win an election he cannot win any other way."
When it comes to the issues, Zimmermann offers answers — long, detailed ones. His campaign mail advertisement is a four-page mock newspaper with the headline "Frustrated with Politics?" In it, Zimmermann, who worked in advertising before becoming a teacher, details his proposed solutions to Florida's budget, economic, education and property insurance problems.
On property insurance, Zimmermann wants to take sinkhole coverage out of basic homeowner's insurance policies, combine it with wind coverage, and support these new policies with a beefed up state hurricane catastrophe fund. The money for the new catastrophe fund would come from the existing fund and from Citizens Property Insurance, the state-run insurer of last resort Zimmermann would phase out.
Zimmermann hopes those changes would allow Florida to again draw national insurance companies, and lead to the end of their Florida-only subsidiaries, known as "pup" companies.
On the budget, Zimmermann would raise new income by leasing Cape Canaveral to private space exploration companies. On education, he would overhaul how teachers are evaluated.
To the veteran legislator Nehr, though, an idea is only as good as the person pushing it. And he's skeptical a freshman representative in a minority party can get much done in Tallahassee.
"As a senior person in the majority party, I will have a lot more influence in getting legislation passed," Nehr said.
Nehr wants to work with others on problems like rising insurance costs and jobs, but his personal legislative goals are more modest. He's health-conscious, and he wants to re-file a bill that died in committee this year that would have encouraged schools to keep playgrounds and fields open after hours, so children can get more exercise. He wants to explore requiring the labeling of genetically modified food in supermarkets, and improving health food offerings in schools.
"I'm normally not into overregulation, but when it comes to the health of my constituents, especially the kids, I have to at least look into issues," said Nehr, who lost 50 pounds several years ago through dieting and exercise.
When asked to name his chief accomplishments in office, Nehr named a few bills, led by Rachel's Law, the 2009 law designed to protect police informers and named after Countryside High School alumna Rachel Hoffman. Hoffman was a 23-year-old Florida State graduate killed during a botched undercover drug buy in Tallahassee in 2008.
Zimmermann scoffs at Nehr's touting of seniority, and calls him an "ineffective" legislator. Zimmermann has faced these odds before, and he likes his chances this year. He thinks he can break through for his first win in four tries on Nov. 6, if he does a good enough job of telling voters about Nehr's past.
"No Democrat should have gotten 49 percent (of the vote) in this district," Zimmermann said of his 2008 performance. "I can win this race because of Peter Nehr."