LAND O'LAKES — Kenneth Benson calls his decision to run for Pasco County schools superintendent a "God thing."
His son, Jason, a student at River Ridge High School, suggested the idea.
"I took a serious look and prayed about it and stepped forward," said Benson, a Moon Lake handyman.
He didn't have $7,217 to pay the filing fee. And he knew collecting 2,980 petition signatures to get on the ballot would be tough.
Benson jumped in anyway. He worked parking lots and community events and, surprising even himself, got enough signatures to make the August primary.
"Me and God were out there, and I would get 200 a day," he said. "People said, 'Yes, new blood. New face.' "
Suddenly, Benson, 54, is a wild card in the Republican primary that looked to be a showdown between incumbent Heather Fiorentino and former secretary of state Kurt Browning.
He offers a stark contrast to the others: He backs school prayer, wants to kill the FCAT and says all Penny for Pasco sales tax money should go to teacher pay (even though by law it can't).
Benson's convinced he has a good shot at winning it all.
"I know they're outdoing me with money," he said of his rivals. "But the thing is, I believe I'm for the people. I don't believe those two career politicians are there for the people."
Fiorentino declined to talk about Benson's candidacy. Browning said he was keeping an eye on Benson, but that he would spend the majority of his campaign focusing on his leadership record versus Fiorentino's.
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If Pasco had an appointed superintendent, Benson wouldn't be a likely candidate.
He finished high school in New York, but took just a few college courses. He has not worked in a school district or run a large business or agency.
But the criteria are different to become the elected CEO of the agency and its $1.1 billion budget. One simply must be a registered voter, qualify for the ballot and win.
Benson suggests his experience outweighs others.
He is a concerned dad, military veteran, and small business operator who credits the Bible as his foundation for his decisions. His campaign fliers urge voters to "Bet on a vet."
"There's so much tension in the school system," he said. "You don't need a master's degree to know this. You just have to understand people, which totally they're out of touch with."
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He acknowledges he's had his own problems, though.
On Jan. 5, 1996, Benson was arrested in a Lakeland lounge parking lot on a misdemeanor charge of soliciting a prostitute. The Polk Sheriff's Office reports that he offered an undercover female officer $10 for oral sex.
The investigative report states that after being read his rights, Mr. Benson "admitted that he did ask Det. Bernard for (oral sex). He stated that he knew that he's wrong."
Benson acknowledged the incident in an interview, although he offered a different explanation. He said he was sitting in his pickup truck with two co-workers, who were not mentioned in the report, when "a woman walked up to me … and she started talking about sex."
He said he jokingly asked about cost and "the next thing I knew, I was in trouble."
He pleaded no contest.
"I'm a clean guy, and still happily married," Benson said. "If God forgives me, why can't you?"
About two years later, Benson was divorced from his wife, Debra. It was that rough patch, he said without adding specifics, that led him to religion.
He said he immersed himself in church work, volunteering and traveling to spread the word. He met and married his current wife, Mary Ann, in the Philippines in 1999. (Their marriage was recorded in Florida in 2004.)
"He's a good man," Mary Ann Benson said. "He'll do a great job."
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In 1999, Benson created a group called Voters United In God We Trust.
The goal, he said, was to get prayer back into public schools. But the group accomplished nothing. Benson said his small group of supporters didn't really want to fight the fight.
Benson still backs the idea, though, and said if elected he would pursue it. He has other goals, too. He wants to:
• Push for a graduation rate of at least 90 percent, compared with the 2011 rate of 85.5 percent. He criticized district graduation programs as "not effective enough."
• Stop charging athletic participation fees.
• Target qualified veterans for employment.
He also calls for a new adult vocational school, and instilling more respect in students.
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Benson's clients and friends said he has the work ethic that could suit a superintendent well.
"He's just a good, ethical person in the dealings I've had with him," said Walt Lamerton of Weichert Realty. "Stop was not in his vocabulary."
David Bekiempis of Adran Management in Temple Terrace said Benson oversees the work his lawn service does, even if he's not working the job himself.
"I know he is honest and he does the work he is supposed to do," Bekiempis said.
Alfie Brisben, a Hudson retiree, said he and Benson met at church and often enjoy Sunday afternoons together.
"He says he wants to make everything better than it has been," Brisben said. "I believe he probably would be a good person for that job."
They would not speculate as to whether Benson could translate his business skills into leading the county's largest employer.
Benson said he's up to the task, regardless of past financial troubles.
Among those, Citicorp foreclosed on Benson's Plant City home in 1997, about the same time he was getting divorced.
Benson also has not paid a $10,744 judgment levied against him by a Taylor County court in 2004. He explained that he rented a backhoe from Budget Rentals. The oil drained out, he said, but the machine didn't signal any problems until the engine burned out.
Budget sued Benson, who argued he did nothing wrong. He said he had insurance but the owner wouldn't accept it.
The court issued its judgment and reissued it at least two more times. Benson said he "didn't pay him a dime" and won't pay: "You've got to defend yourself."
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Benson said he knows he doesn't have the credentials of a burnished politician, but he sees that as a positive. He said he's running on strong beliefs, hard work, and the goal to make a difference. He said he hopes that's enough.
"I just go by what the people say," Benson said. " 'We the people.' It's the majority, not the minority. . . . We know people. We know the Constitution. We know the Bible. And we know what is right and wrong."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614.