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5 contests for state legislature promise to be tough

Tampa Bay voters could witness five bruising battles for legislative power this year — four in districts now held by Republicans and one for a seat held by a Democrat.

Chiefly this is a reflection of a nationwide political climate where Republicans are on the defensive. And state Democrats hope to build on wins in the past two years in districts where Republicans hold a scant majority in voter registrations.

"We see the Democrats on an upward trend, and the Republicans going downward," said John Laurance Reid, the state Democratic Party's political director for Senate races.

Nonetheless, any Democratic victories will be tempered by the reality in Tallahassee: Republicans maintain a strong majority in both chambers, and they even have designs on winning back a seat lost in 2006 to Rep. Janet Long, D-Seminole.

Friday's deadline for candidates to qualify for the ballot marked the official start of the 2008 election season. And for several incumbents, it also marked the end.

Eleven of the Tampa Bay area's 25 state lawmakers were re-elected Friday when no one qualified to challenge them in the fall. The other 14 drew opponents, but most won't face a serious challenge.

Blame the modern election system, with carefully drawn political districts that usually assure one party's dominance, and campaign donations that favor the incumbent.

That leaves the handful of races where the parties smell blood. Here's a look at the local battle lines:

Senate District 11

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, is one of the area's best-known lawmakers. But the Florida Democratic Party thinks it could have a winner in Fred Taylor, a Vietnam veteran, three-time Purple Heart recipient and New Port Richey businessman who abandoned a bid for Congress in 2006. The party has given him at least $20,000 in support so far.

"Without Fred Taylor as a candidate, I'm not certain we would" make it a priority, said Reid. Another Democrat, college student Richard Skandera of Palm Harbor, is running but hasn't received party support.

Outside organizations are also getting involved in the Republican-leaning coastal district, which includes northern Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties. A school voucher advocacy group, All Children Matter, has been airing ads for Fasano on cable television. Planned Parenthood has promised pressure on Fasano for voting for an unsuccessful bill to require ultrasounds before abortions.

"I have never taken any election for granted," said Fasano, a senator since 2002.

House District 44

Rep. Robert Schenck, R-Spring Hill, won in 2006 by 1,019 votes, or less than 2 percent. Republicans have held the seat, which encompasses most of Hernando County and a small portion of Pasco, for more than a decade.

This year Schenck, 32, will square off against Democrat and political newcomer Joseph Puglia, 41, a Brooksville business owner backed by the state party.

Puglia is a retired New York police officer and United Airlines pilot who now owns Big Red Carting, a local trash collection service. He plans to focus heavily on his business background and improving the economy.

Schenck, a former county commissioner, intends to promote his record cutting taxes, specifically his involvement in the property tax cuts.

Both will have to contend with a surprise Green Party candidate, Sarah Roman, 21, of Port Richey.

House District 48

Rep. Peter Nehr, R-Tarpon Springs, won in 2006 by less than 1,500 votes, or 3 percent, despite the GOP's strong advantage in this northern Pinellas-southern Pasco district.

The same opponent, Carl Zimmermann, a 57-year-old high school teacher from Palm Harbor, is back for another contest.

Nehr, 55, said he expects a close race, but expects to prevail.

"I am confident that (voters) will vote based on what their individual representative has accomplished rather than vote strict party line," Nehr said.

A former advertising executive and Countryside High teacher, Zimmermann is a former vice president of the North Pinellas Republican Club who switched parties in 2004.

"I'm a fiscal conservative and a social moderate, so the extreme right swing of the Republican Party was not in alignment with where I was," he said.

House District 51

Republicans have their eye on regaining this seat, which their candidate lost by just 561 votes, or 1 percent, to Democrat Janet Long in 2006.

Long was expected to face Republican Bruce Cotton, an unsuccessful 2006 primary candidate, who announced in July he would run.

But when the ballot closed Friday, Cotton had not qualified.

A political unknown, Republican Terry Lynn Sanchez of Largo, filed on June 16. Neither Cotton nor Sanchez could be reached for comment.

House District 54

Democrat George A. Gonzalez faces an uphill battle to unseat Rep. Jim Frishe, R-St. Petersburg. The district includes most of Pinellas' beach towns where Republicans outnumber Democrats. But some think Frishe's first term makes him vulnerable.

The chief weapon for his opponent: Frishe introduced a bill this year to let the state Department of Transportation set tolls on the Pinellas Bayway's bridges leading to St. Pete Beach and Fort De Soto Park. The move "shows that this guy is completely out of touch with his constituents," said Gonzalez, 55, a Madeira Beach Realtor.

Frishe, 61, withdrew his bill after a meeting drew 400 protesters. He said he never supported toll increases as high as the ones the Transportation Department proposed, but wanted to make sure the state provides adequate financing for the bridges.

Times staff writers David DeCamp, Tamara El-Khoury, Rita Farlow, Curtis Krueger and Anne Lindberg contributed to this report.

5 contests for state legislature promise to be tough 06/21/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 24, 2008 11:27am]
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