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Brown-Waite challenger: Democrats gaining steam

As epic battles go, U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite's Democratic challengers have failed to bring it in general elections.

The state and national Democratic parties, in turn, have failed to show up with cash and resources to help unseat Brown-Waite, a Brooksville Republican who has handily won re-election three times in a sprawling district drawn to favor the GOP.

Tom Doolan, a 44-year-old Mascotte lawyer and one of three Democrats who have filed papers to run next year, says that at least three things are working in the blue party's favor this time around.

By Doolan's reckoning, the demographics of the district are changing in a way that Democrats could capitalize on. He insists that more constituents are displeased with Brown-Waite. And, he says, the party in 2010 will have the most viable candidate in years.

"Even though it's gerrymandered, I do believe with the influx of new people it's not going to be as Republican heavy as she thinks it's going to be," Doolan said of the district that includes all of Citrus, Hernando and Sumter counties, most of Lake, Levy, and Pasco, and parts of Marion and Polk. "We need to seek out the independent vote. A lot of people right now are very dissatisfied with the way Ginny Brown-Waite has carried herself."

There were about 25,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats in the district in 2008, according to the most recent figures from the state elections office. Compare that to a Republican edge of 10,000 registered voters in 2002.

But the statistics also show why Doolan is optimistic about the potential role of independents and voters without party affiliation.

There were 16,600 independents in the district in 2008, more than twice the number in 2002.

About 73,000 registered voters listed no party affiliation in 2002. Six years later, that figure had grown by nearly 30,000.

But it's unlikely those numbers will help a Democratic challenger overcome a host of hurdles, said Daniel Smith, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida who has kept tabs on the political dynamics of the 5th District since Brown-Waite wrested the seat from Karen Thurman in 2002.

Many independents and non-party voters are former Republicans and usually wind up voting that way, he said.

"I don't think that bodes well for the Democrats," he said.

Even the most viable candidate has an uphill battle against an entrenched Republican like Brown-Waite with a big campaign war chest — $483,000 in cash on hand as of September — in a gerrymandered district, Smith said. It's unlikely the state and national party will offer help when there are some three dozen other races considered to be a higher priority, he said.

"They're trying to save other seats rather than pick one up."

Smith noted a potential wild card in the game, though. Jason Sager, a 35-year-old unemployed audiovisual engineer from Brooksville who organized a tax tea party in the county seat this month, has filed to challenge Brown-Waite in the Republican primary. Sager appears poised to argue that Brown-Waite, who has stuck to the party line with a few notable exceptions, isn't conservative enough.

Sager may wind up being a mere speed bump for Brown-Waite, but ignoring his attacks might not be wise, Smith said.

"It can be dismissed easily by a (sitting) member, but it comes with political risks," he said.

A spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the fundraising group that aims to get Democratic candidates elected and keep them in office, said it's too early to say whether the group will offer money and resources in Florida's 5th District.

"Considering that Rep. Brown Waite has spent the last year blocking job creation and standing with insurance companies against health insurance reform, it's no surprise that people are lining up to run against her," Jesse Ferguson said. "If she makes it through her primary race, there will be ample reasons for Democrats to challenge her record."

The reply from the state Democratic Party was about the same. Party spokesman Eric Jotkoff was also willing to take a dig at the incumbent.

"Ginny Brown-Waite continues to show that she's more interested in playing petty politics than delivering relief to the people of Florida," Jotkoff said. "All she does is stand up for the right wing rather than create jobs and jump-start the economy in her district. We feel strongly that the people of the 5th District are sick of Congresswoman Brown-Waite, and that's why they'll see her removed in 2010."

But Andy Sere, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the fundraising arm for GOP candidates, predicted that the same scenario seen in past elections will play out again for Brown-Waite next year.

"There is a growing body of evidence that there is a stronger political environment for Republicans than we've had in several election cycles," Sere said. "So on top of the congresswoman's impressive record, the political environment is going to put this race out of reach for Democrats."

• • •

Doolan says he comes by his Democratic affiliation honestly.

Born in Evergreen Park, Ill., Doolan was raised in what he describes as a working-class neighborhood in southwest Chicago. His father drove a truck, and his mother did secretarial work.

"As far as I know, everybody in my family was a Democrat," Doolan said.

Doolan has a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Northern Illinois University, making him the first in his family to earn a college degree, he says. He worked as a paralegal in the Chicago area, moving to the Orlando area in 1995 and then to Lake County in 2004. He earned a law degree from Florida A&M University a few years later.

He says he felt like "a pariah" as a Democrat in Lake County and wondered why so few challengers were willing to take on Brown-Waite. The divorced father of two says he resigned from the Dean, Ringers, Morgan and Lawton firm in Orlando and opened a small family law practice to allow more time for his congressional campaign.

His stances are generally Democratic boilerplate. He supports a public health care option and opposes expanded drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. He criticized Brown-Waite for not working harder to bring jobs to the district, especially in the renewable-energy industry.

As a lawyer, Doolan has what he calls a pet issue. Many or even most parts of the Patriot Act, passed after Sept. 11 when terrorism fears were at a peak, need to be repealed, he said.

When asked about Brown-Waite's solid reputation for constituent services, especially with the district's large number of veterans, Doolan said a Democrat can do the same.

"She panders to the veterans," she said. "I would fight to protect everything they have."

Jim Piccillo, a political newcomer from Lutz who works for a Tampa firm that tries to help cash-strapped homeowners renegotiate loan terms, has also filed papers as a Democrat. David Werder, a disabled truck driver from Spring Hill and a perennial candidate who has garnered few votes in past races, is back again.

John Russell, the acute-care nurse from Dade City who has gone up against Brown-Waite twice in the general election, says he doesn't plan to try again this year.

Russell, by some accounts, had a solid grasp of the issues but what some people called an overly aggressive style. At least two infamous run-ins with Brown-Waite may have turned off voters, and his criticism of party leader Thurman in 2007 didn't help bring money to his effort. He garnered 39 percent of vote in the 2008 general election, a few percentage points fewer than his showing two years earlier.

Doolan says he understands if the party is reluctant to spend resources in the district.

"But once you have a strong candidate, I think it would be smart to jump in with both feet," he said.

Piccillo said he's not counting on it.

"Even before we got into this race, we said if we're going to rely on the state or national party to win, we're going to lose," Piccillo said. "The people in the state party and national party are good people, but they don't have a vote in this district. We need to win based on our merits and earning the trust and votes of people in the district."

Brown-Waite didn't address all of the Democrats' specific criticisms in an e-mailed response to the Times; nor did she address a request for her assessment of next year's race. She said her party is not the one that is faltering.

"Democrats are in denial," she said. "Their policies have failed. They spent a trillion dollars on a stimulus bill that didn't create any jobs. They're about to spend another trillion dollars on a health care plan that is going to raise health care premiums.

"Democrats have no one to blame for their failures except Nancy Pelosi, President Obama and those who support higher taxes and out of control deficit spending."

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Brown-Waite challenger: Democrats gaining steam 11/26/09 [Last modified: Thursday, November 26, 2009 9:18pm]

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