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Accusations, denials define race for District 54

Incumbent Jim Frishe, 59, says he has been effective in Tallahassee.

Incumbent Jim Frishe, 59, says he has been effective in Tallahassee.

It's a staple of just about every political campaign in America: A candidate schedules a nice gathering, shakes every hand, makes a pithy speech and asks for support.

But something about state Rep. Jim Frishe's seemingly innocuous gathering at the Tradewinds Island Resort early in the campaign season rankled his Democratic opponent, George A. Gonzalez.

Gonzalez quickly fired off an e-mail to Frishe's guests, accusing the incumbent of wanting to raise tolls on the Pinellas Bayway, of failing to take a strong stand against offshore oil drilling, and of supporting "immigration legislation that will devastate your ability to find employees to work in your restaurants and clean your hotel rooms."

The e-mail urged Frishe supporters to study both candidates, and "If after doing this you still want to vote against your own self interests then by all means do so, but don't complain when things just get worse."

This, in a nutshell, is the campaign for House District 54. Gonzalez is an aggressive challenger who takes just about every opportunity to criticize Frishe, as they campaign in a district that runs roughly along the beach communities from Clearwater to St. Pete Beach and dips inland at Clearwater and Largo.

Frishe, 59, denies many of the claims that Gonzalez makes. He says he's "adamantly opposed" to offshore drilling and against toll increases on the Bayway.

He says he is the better choice for voters because he is an experienced legislator with the skills and knowledge to help people.

Frishe said he's effective in Tallahassee. For example, he helped lead the Legislature's efforts to rewrite child custody laws. It didn't earn any headlines, but Frishe said it was the kind of nuts-and-bolts work that made the system better for children and parents.

Frishe was elected to this seat in 2006 but also served in a Pinellas Park area House district for six years during the 1980s.

By contrast, Gonzalez, 55, says Republicans have made a mess of things in Tallahassee and that Frishe, of St. Petersburg, bears responsibility. Gonzalez has run for office once before, an unsuccessful bid for the Madeira Beach City Commission. He says his experience in business and as a union leader would help make him a good lawmaker. He said he's willing to shake things up in Tallahassee to find better ways of doing things.

To win, Gonzalez will have to appeal to Republicans, who make up almost 42 percent of the district's voters. About 34 percent are Democrats, and 24 percent are independents or members of smaller political parties.

The biggest flash point in this race starts with the Pinellas Bayway and the bridges that lead toward St. Pete Beach and Fort De Soto Park. The bridges need to be replaced at a cost that has been estimated at $179-million. But the Bayway's toll funds contain only about $37-million.

Frishe sponsored a bill that would have given the state Department of Transportation the authority to set tolls on the bridges — as it does every other toll bridge in the state, he said. But then the DOT announced plans to increase one bridge's tolls from 50 cents to $1.25 and another's tolls from 35 cents to $2.50. Future increases would have been phased in.

That created a firestorm of protest. More than 400 residents crammed a DOT meeting to complain. As a result, Frishe backed off his bill.

"This shows that this guy is completely out of touch with his constituents," Gonzalez said. "I think that you saw how angry the people were."

Frishe stresses that he was never in support of the toll increases. He was just trying to put the DOT in charge of the bridges' financing, something he says would be necessary for any of the possible solutions to the problem. Now, he said, he is checking into whether federal money is available for replacing the bridges.

So is Gonzalez. He appeared at a meeting of the Pinellas Metropolitan Planning Organization and asked why the federal government couldn't take a sliver of the money it is spending in Iraq and use it for the local bridges.

The two differ sharply on education. Frishe said the Jeb Bush-era reforms that included the FCAT have led to greater accountability in schools and "outstanding progress in student achievement." Gonzalez said those same reforms produced "disgusting" results, including Florida's high dropout rate.

The candidates do share some views: Both oppose offshore drilling and say they would be willing to explore fundamental reforms to the state's tax structure.

Gonzalez said he would be willing to carefully review sales tax exemptions, cut the ones that don't make sense, and explore ways of greatly reducing school property taxes. Frishe would like to eliminate property taxes and also sales tax exemptions other than those for food, medicine and shelter.

>>AT A GLANCE

About House

District 54

The district runs along the beach and island communities from Clearwater all the way to Fort De Soto, including Tierra Verde and Isla del Sol. It dips slightly inland at Clearwater and Largo. Representatives serve two-year terms and earn $30,336 annually.

Accusations, denials define race for District 54 11/01/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 3, 2008 9:01pm]
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