SPRING HILL — Standing outside the tax office at Westside Government Center on Forest Oaks Boulevard, Dave Werder smiled as the gray-haired woman looked him up and down.
Yes, she said, she would consider signing a petition to help get him on the ballot for the Democratic primary in the District 44 state House seat in August. But first she wanted to know Werder's plan to lessen the cost of her annual auto tag renewal.
"I'd lower it back to what it was," Werder told her. "I'm with you on that. It's not fair."
With that, Hernando County's perennial office seeker earned one more signature toward the total number he needs to present to the Florida Elections Commission by May 17. By Thursday, he had gathered about 140 signatures; he said he needs 1,200.
Werder, 55, knows well how steep the climb can be.
Dressed in a blue shirt and tie and a ball cap with an American flag motif, Werder scanned for potential petition signers on Thursday before lighting a cigarette.
"I'm used to it," he said as he waved to a man entering the tax office. "They want $10,000 to file for the race, and I'm not going to pay it. Wouldn't pay it even if I had the money."
Werder has had eight runs at public office — all unsuccessful. His last three attempts were for the 5th Congressional District seat.
He was collecting signatures for a fourth try to win the Democratic primary in that race and take a shot at Republican incumbent Ginny Brown-Waite when he discovered that he was running out of time.
"They moved up the deadline," said Werder, who estimates he was about 3,000 signatures short when he gave up.
Werder's new effort will pit him against former County Commissioner Diane Rowden in the Democratic primary.
Adding another twist, incumbent state Rep. Rob Schenck has drawn an opponent in the Republican primary: Werder's sister, Regina McGuire of Hudson.
Like Werder, McGuire is hoping to make the ballot through signatures. To help her, Werder is asking people to fill out petitions for her, too.
Werder, who describes his sister as a "carpetbagging tea partier," said they share somewhat similar beliefs about how to run government.
"There's a huge lack of common sense there," said Werder. He cites the substantial rise in fees for drivers licenses, auto tags and title transfers last year by the Legislature as particularly hurtful to taxpayers.
A disabled truck driver, Werder is comfortable as he approaches strangers for their signatures. He introduces himself as "the guy on Powell Road with the outhouse" and jokes that he's not really a Democratic Party man.
"I've run for office as a Democrat, a Republican and an independent," he said. "Unless you're with an established party, you don't get much attention. That's why I use other strategies to get people to notice me."
Werder's eccentric behavior has indeed earned him distinction. Nearly 30 years ago, he camped atop a 30-foot flagpole in a Clearwater parking lot for 439 days to protest an increase in gas prices to a whopping 99 cents a gallon. The stunt, which Werder claims was a world record, earned him national attention.
During his 2008 bid for Congress, Werder successfully lobbied to be officially listed on the ballot as H. David "the flagpole sitter" Werder. He made numerous campaign appearances with a pet possum named Buddy.
This time, Werder hopes his notoriety will at least improve his showing over that in the 2008 primary, in which he received just 516 votes in the sprawling district. But should he make it to the general election, Werder has a bold new campaign strategy that he's considering giving a try: hot air ballooning.
"I have yet to fly it over Hernando County," he said. "But I think it would get me noticed."
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1435.