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School Board candidates dance around nonpartisan rules

BROOKSVILLE — On paper, Tuesday's election for a seat on the Hernando County School Board is strictly a nonpartisan affair.

By state law, candidates James Yant, Gene Magrini and Robert Neuhausen are barred from campaigning based on any affiliation to a political party. It's been that way since 1998, when Florida voters changed the Constitution to keep partisan politics out of the school races.

But even if candidates are sticking to the letter of the law, there are Republican and Democratic fingerprints all over this year's election.

Magrini's name turned up on a list of clients of Laurie Pizzo, a Republican political consultant and Realtor who served as county co-chairwoman of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. Pizzo's social-networking Web site listed other Republicans including County Commission candidate John Druzbick and supervisor of elections candidate Shirley Anderson.

Pizzo, Magrini, Druzbick and Anderson were unanimous in saying that there has been no paid consulting in their respective races.

"I am (his consultant) for raising money," Pizzo said, describing her work as volunteer. "But I'm not his campaign manager."

Magrini called Pizzo a friend, not a political consultant.

"Laurie certainly helped me put a fundraiser together, but being a consultant, no," he said.

Then there are the perennial partisan jabs.

Yant said his lawn signs have been disappearing at an alarming rate. And the Republicans invited his opponents to candidate forums, such as the one held Aug. 5 by the Nature Coast Republican Women's Network. But Yant was never called.

"They haven't invited me to anything," he said. "I would have gone."

As it happens, Yant could not have spoken even if he were invited. Only registered Republicans can take the floor at such events, said Pat McNiff, a spokeswoman for the Nature Coast group.

The Democrats have been busy, too. This month, many county voters received an automated phone call reminding them about early voting. Then they heard this: "By the way, did you know James Yant is the only registered Democrat in the race for School Board?"

Democratic county chairman Jay Rowden acknowledged his party was behind the message, and said he did not see a problem with it.

"Nowhere in the message do we say, 'Vote for James,' Rowden said. "We're doing this strictly on our own; it's not something that was promoted by James."

Rowden acknowledged that some might see the message as partisan, but said a reasonable person wouldn't call it campaigning.

"It depends on your definition of campaigning," he added. "If we were sending them out just strictly to Democrats, you could probably draw that conclusion. But we're not; we're sending them out to all affiliations."

Under Florida law, political parties can't endorse, support or assist a candidate in judicial races, which are also nonpartisan, said Jennifer Davis, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state's office. But courts have issued conflicting rulings on how to interpret that law in other nonpartisan contests.

Yant said he was not aware of the calls bearing his name until he received one himself. In any case, he said, he has little taste for the political jugular.

"People get tied up in this partisan politics, but I couldn't care less about it," Yant said.

Not much has changed since the School Board race was overtly partisan, said Druzbick, who served on the board from 1994 to 2006. "I was invited to the Republican clubs, but the Democrats never invited us to speak at their clubs," he said. "(Now) it is nonpartisan on the surface. But there are loyalties."

Candidate Neuhausen accused both of his opponents of receiving behind-the-scenes support.

"I do believe there are hidden agendas there," he said, holding up his own candidacy as an example of post-partisanship. "I don't have any allegiance to any particular political party."

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

>>Fast facts

Vote Tuesday

Polling places across Hernando County will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday for the primary election, which includes the nonpartisan race for Hernando County School Board, in which all voters may cast ballots. Early voting ended Saturday. Voters who have requested absentee ballots must return the ballots to the Spring Hill elections office, 7443 Forest Oaks Blvd., by 4 p.m. Tuesday or to the Brooksville elections office, Room 165, 20 N Main St., by 7 p.m. Tuesday.

School Board candidates dance around nonpartisan rules 08/23/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 27, 2008 11:19am]
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