ST. PETERSBURG — In one of the most competitive races for the Florida House, a slugfest for the District 68 seat is intensifying as a political newcomer keeps pounding a former legislator.
Democrat Dwight Dudley came out swinging even before Republican Frank Farkas won the August primary.
Dudley, a lawyer, is slamming Farkas, a chiropractor, for supporting legislation in 2006 to allow utility companies like Progress Energy to charge Floridians a fee for construction costs at new nuclear plants before they are even built.
Progress Energy has collected hundreds of millions of dollars for a new plant in Levy County although the facility may not come online until 2021, if at all.
While dubbing the legislation the "Farkas Fee," Dudley has attacked the former legislator in mailers, a video and television spots in the St. Petersburg-based district. He's telling voters to expect the worst if Farkas returns to the Florida House.
"He has been a champion for special interests all the way and all the time," said Dudley, 58. "It's the worst case of theft consumers have ever seen."
Farkas, 56, is undeterred.
He expected Dudley to make the electric legislation the hallmark of his campaign.
"He has no record," Farkas said. "He's a lawyer, but he doesn't tell people he represents murderers, rapists and sex offenders. Why doesn't he say that? I'm not running away from my record. I'm standing by it."
House District 68 covers much of northeast St. Petersburg and eastern Pinellas Park. It's a moderate district carried by Democrats Alex Sink in 2010 and Barack Obama in 2008.
The seat opened up when GOP state Rep. Jeff Brandes entered the contest for Senate District 22.
The Republican and Democratic parties have infused the race with cash.
Through mid September, Dudley has collected about $51,000 and spent about $8,400. Farkas has collected about $116,000 and spent about $40,000.
Farkas, who was elected to the state House in 1998 and re-elected in 2000, 2002 and 2004 before being term-limited, grew up in Wisconsin and moved to St. Petersburg in 1972 with his family. He founded the Farkas Chiropractic Clinic and has been president of the Florida Chiropractors Association. He reports a net worth of $3.5 million.
He wants to return to Tallahassee to help small businesses expand and to create training programs for professions like auto mechanics and computer technicians for students who won't go to college.
"We need to have people for these jobs," Farkas said.
Dudley, a former amateur boxing champion, grew up in St. Petersburg and is one of 11 children. Early in his career, he worked as a legislative aide and analyst for the Florida House. He then served as a public defender for eight years before opening his own law practice.
Dudley, who reports a net worth of about $418,000, said he wants the seat because the political landscape has tilted to the powerful and well-connected in Florida. He believes too many representatives are beholden to special interests and only want to enhance their political careers by serving others' needs.
"I have a good desire for ethics reform in Tallahassee," Dudley said. "There is horrific corruption there."
Both candidates typically follow party lines.
They do agree on some issues. Both support collecting the sales tax on Internet sales and a Pinellas County referendum on mass transit.
Still, the 2006 "advance fee" utilities legislation will likely dominate the race for the remaining weeks. Farkas now regrets voting for the legislation and vows to repeal the law if he gets back in office.
Looking back, he says he thinks few legislators would have supported the law had they known Progress Energy would exploit a loophole by passing costs from a botched nuclear plant repair on to customers.
He said the law had nearly unanimous support and was signed into law by then-Gov. Jeb Bush. The Florida House voted 119-1; the Florida Senate, 39-0.
"It's a big issue," Farkas said. "It has to be fixed."
Dudley agrees that law should be repealed but said Farkas isn't the person to lead the charge.
He equates Farkas' explanation to passengers on the Titanic saying they enjoyed the desserts as the mammoth ship sank.
"This is a pocketbook issue," Dudley said. "It affects small businesses, churches, hospitals, schools and local governments. They're all paying more."
He also raps Farkas for spearheading the charge to impose the largest telecommunication tax in Florida's history. The tax, Farkas said, was needed to pay for expensive fiber-optic cables being used by phone companies.
A recent Republican Party mailer calls Dudley a "tax deadbeat" for paying property taxes late "at least 21 times over 14 years on at least six properties." In some cases, counties placed tax liens on the deeds, records show.
Dudley's spokesman, Franco Ripple, said the delinquencies occurred when Dudley and his brothers took over properties after their father died.
"They're all paid in full and current," Ripple said. "As many Floridians know, being a small business owner and dad of three teenagers can be expensive."
A recent Democratic Party mailer labeled Farkas as "shameless" for his cozy relationship with special interests.
Farkas said he has a record of helping small businesses obtain health insurance and established a program to assist the elderly to regain their independence and avoid nursing homes.
He expects Dudley to keep labeling him a career politician. But he reiterated that he has been away from the Florida House for six years while growing his business and serving at charities like the Salvation Army.
Farkas stressed that voters elected him four times, adding: "I'm honored by that."
St. Petersburg lawyer Matt Weidner is also running for the seat as an independent. He has raised no contributions and isn't actively campaigning.
Mark Puente can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.