LAND O'LAKES — Heather Fiorentino wants Pasco County Republicans to think of Kurt Browning as a "double dippin' former Democrat" with a "taste for taxpayer money."
The two-term school superintendent blitzed mailboxes over the weekend with that message about her widely known primary challenger, aiming to get voters' attention just before they receive absentee ballots.
"I don't begrudge DROP," Fiorentino said, using the acronym for Florida's Deferred Retirement Option Program. "I voted for it (as a lawmaker). What I begrudge is the person who does it, signs the form saying 'I'm retiring,' and then keeps coming back."
Browning, who received one of the ads himself, blasted Fiorentino for trying to change the subject of the campaign from education to politics.
"The reason why I pledged to work for no salary for at least the first year was to keep us focused on the education issues. She refuses to talk about it," he said. "Instead, she wants to talk about my retirement."
Browning entered DROP in 2005, while still Pasco elections supervisor. His official retirement date arrived five years later, while serving as secretary of state in the Charlie Crist administration.
State law provided that he receive his $426,897.40 DROP payout — his accrued monthly pension payments over that time, plus interest — within 60 days of his April 30, 2010, retirement. It also set forth that he would begin getting his monthly pension payment of $7,273.29 and stated that he could not take another job in the state retirement system for six months.
About eight months later, newly elected Gov. Rick Scott asked Browning to return as secretary of state. He has said he came out of retirement out of a sense of responsibility to serve the state of Florida. By taking the $140,000 annual salary while still receiving his pension, Browning got labeled a "double dipper."
"All I've done is follow the rules," said Browning, who is not eligible for any additional state retirement benefits. "If (Fiorentino) wants to talk about the past, she can continue to talk about the past. I am talking about the future of our children's education."
He repeated his comments that the district under Fiorentino hasn't made enough academic progress, with its FCAT results coming in the middle of the pack statewide. He criticized the incumbent's management style, referring to a 2011 report from the state superintendents association that pointed out poor morale in the ranks, among other problems.
"She hasn't done anything for eight years to make our district better," Browning said. "The facts speak for themselves."
Fiorentino said attacks like those prompted her to go after her challenger rather than simply highlight her accomplishments.
School district employees "work too hard and haven't had raises. We've cut back on personnel. They're wearing two and three hats," she said. Yet the district has shown overall improvement in its testing and graduation results, with the Tampa Bay area's top achievement ranking, she said, although she acknowledged that some schools continue to need much improvement.
"For him to make these off-the-cuff remarks at rallies, that's just wrong. That's not leadership," she said. "That's cheap shots."
She suggested that Republican voters might need a reminder that Browning isn't the conservative leader he wants them to believe he is. Browning switched from Democrat to Republican in 2002, saying the modern Democrats were not the same as the party he joined as a teen.
Fiorentino touts herself as the only lifelong Republican in the Aug. 14 superintendent's race, which also includes Moon Lake handyman Ken Benson.
She mocked Browning's offer to take a $1 salary for a year, noting that the superintendent's term is four years long. The state listed salary is $137,796, although Fiorentino has kept her pay at $134,400, foregoing raises while her employees did not get them.
"I think that's a joke," Fiorentino said of Browning's $1 salary offer. "He should have done that when he went back to being secretary of state. Not now."
Browning said he did not intend to let the attack sidetrack him from his bid to replace Fiorentino.
"This district needs a culture change," he said. "The only way it's going to happen is if we talk facts and deal with the facts."