TITUSVILLE — Republican Rep. Tom Feeney wants voters in his district to know about his work on space issues. Democrats want them to know about his play on the golf course with a criminal lobbyist.
In his first serious challenge since carving out his own district six years ago, Feeney believes he will win re-election based on issues, while Democrats are constantly reminding voters he is linked to a Washington corruption scandal.
Democrats are sending out almost daily reminders that Feeney went to Scotland with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff on a 2003 golf junket. A similar junket a year earlier led to former Ohio Rep. Bob Ney's prison sentence on corruption charges.
Feeney dismisses the attacks, and instead says he has the experience and knowledge needed to protect the space industry that is so vital to the district that stretches from Orlando's sprawling eastern suburbs to the Kennedy Space Center.
Democrats are making Feeney their top Florida target, giving their backing to Suzanne Kosmas, 64, a former state representative from New Smyrna Beach who owns a real estate business. She knows Feeney well, having served with him in Tallahassee when he was House speaker.
"People don't change their stripes," Kosmas said, noting that Feeney's time as speaker was marked by deep partisanship and describing him as a radical ideologue.
Feeney's response to being a top target? "That's an honor." He believes voters will not pay attention to the attacks.
"I know my district inside and out. There are issues in my district that nobody pays more attention to," Feeney said during an interview in his Washington office, where he displays models of several rockets and the space shuttle.
The shuttle program is scheduled to end in 2010, so thousands of space jobs are expected to disappear from the area.
Feeney, 49, should know his district well. After all, he helped map it out. As House speaker, he was able to oversee the redrawing of district maps when Florida gained two seats in Congress. He was elected in a landslide later that year, and Democrats didn't even bother putting up a candidate the first time he was up for re-election.
This year, though, will be a fight. Kosmas had already raised $665,000 through the first three months of this year. That compares to Feeney's $982,000. The Florida Democratic Party is calling him one of the most corrupt U.S. representatives in the country, and the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee regularly mentions Feeney's golf trip.
Feeney was among seven people who joined Abramoff on the $160,000 junket. Feeney reimbursed the government $5,643 for the trip, but the Justice Department last year asked Feeney for more information on his travel. Feeney calls the trip an embarrassing mistake.
Many voters, like Brian Miles of Titusville, are not focused on the congressional race now. But the Republican construction worker who recently had to change jobs because of the weak housing market said the space industry will be a factor in his decision.
"If that slumps, people won't buy any houses. That directly affects what I do," said Miles, 42, while pumping $3.55-a-gallon gasoline into his sport utility vehicle. "That just trickles down to everybody."
Terri Mangini, a Democrat who cuts hair at the Bent Pole Barber Shop, agreed, lamenting the shuttle's demise.
"It's going to kill this town," said Mangini, 58, as she stood in the shop that overlooks the space center and the shuttle's launch pad. "This town pretty much lives for the space shuttle."
But while her customers are talking more about politics, Feeney's seat isn't part of the conversation.
"Not a word," she said, adding that presidential politics is much more on people's minds and she's hearing a lot of frustration about the economy, crime, housing, gas prices, the war in Iraq, health care and more.