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Brown-Waite vs. Russell in rematch for House seat

The names on the ballot and the rhetoric surrounding the 5th Congressional District contest sound familiar.

Even some of the signs that Republican Ginny Brown-Waite and Democrat John Russell have planted across the county are recycled from the 2006 campaign.

The rematch also features the same calls for change that have been ringing down from the national level. Russell chanted the mantra in 2006, though he failed to catch the fever that carried Democrats into the majority in Congress. Brown-Waite beat him with 60 percent of the vote.

This time, Russell is pinning his hopes on one important distinction from the previous race: the dismal condition of the nation's economy and the frustration among cash-strapped voters.

"People are voting against the status quo," he said. "It's the failure to act that put us in these positions."

Russell is specifically criticizing Brown-Waite, who serves on the 70-member House Financial Services Committee and subcommittees that oversee capital markets, financial institutions and consumer credit.

He vowed to play a more active role in drafting legislation, despite the fact that party leaders wrote the rescue bill largely in private.

It's a matter of style, because Brown-Waite and Russell both opposed the financial bailout package that eventually passed Congress.

On the campaign trial, this issue consumes much of the conversation. But at the core, this contest represents a study in contrasting and evolving public images: Brown-Waite trying to cement her claim as a moderate and Russell's attempt to shed his more extreme image.

Ginny Brown-Waite

Brown-Waite, a three-term incumbent, is a study of a partisan enigma that speaks to her politically strategic nature.

The 65-year-old Brooksville resident is quick to trumpet partisan missives on the House floor with blistering rhetoric, such as blaming Democrats for this summer's high gasoline prices, which she labeled "a new hostage crisis."

She also sided with President Bush in 2007 to oppose the expansion of a popular health care program for children of the working poor.

Brown-Waite aligns with her party 90 percent of the time in the current Congress, according to an analysis by the Washington Post. And her lifetime rating by the American Conservative Union stands at 86 percent.

But at the same time, she proudly calls herself a "maverick" and touts her bipartisan efforts.

"I can tell you without a doubt that when (GOP leaders) count votes, they are like, 'She's probably not going to change her mind, but we'll try,' " Brown-Waite said.

She points to congressional ratings from other organizations, such as the nonpartisan magazine National Journal, which suggest she's more liberal than 33 percent of the House.

Brown-Waite also notes how she supported Bush's policies just 69 percent of the time in 2007, but doesn't mention how her support for the president declined as his popularity decayed.

Her bipartisan assertions include her work as a lead sponsor, along with Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, on the greatest expansion of the GI Bill since World War II.

This effort appeals greatly in Brown-Waite's district, where military veterans and senior citizens represent the two most substantial voting blocs in the sprawling eight-county territory.

"I'm the go-to person for veterans," Brown-Waite said.

But as the congresswoman tries to satisfy these various political constituencies, she often finds herself at points of contradictions.

In 2006, she changed her position on the Iraq war after championing it in the beginning. She now favors setting benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet before troop withdrawal.

And likewise this year, she switched her stance on offshore oil drilling as gas prices skyrocketed and voters demanded relief.

In 2005 and 2008, Brown-Waite voted to protect Florida's coasts from drilling. But now she favors drilling within 50 miles of shore. She said she supports a so-called "all in" policy promoting more oil exploration, nuclear power and alternative fuels.

Her opponent dismisses any insinuation that she is a rebel Republican who speaks her mind.

"She's not an independent thinker. That's just concocted," Russell said. "With a few notable exceptions, she votes with the Republican Party and the Bush administration."

John T. Russell

In his campaign, Russell is trying to mold his image, too.

The 52-year-old Dade City resident is plagued by his combative persona. He's not afraid to take on opponents or his party, but it often gets him in trouble.

In October 2007, he became belligerent at a state Democratic Party event in Orlando when officials asked him to leave. The fracas ended with a trespassing citation and a lifetime ban from all Disney properties.

Brown-Waite mentioned the incident in a recent mailer to voters.

"You're going to cause friction when you oppose someone," Russell said in a past interview. "My actions were one of an inexperienced candidate. I'm now an experienced candidate."

Russell remains hostile when challenged, and his sharp attacks on Brown-Waite on the campaign trail continue. This persona seems to contradict with the tone needed in his day job as an acute-care nurse.

But he dismisses concern about his ability to negotiate with other lawmakers and cites his experience talking with families facing life-or-death positions. "I'm going to work with people," Russell said. "I have the motivation, energy and skill set."

Russell is also making less obvious moves to moderate his standing, dropping affiliations with the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Organization for Women because of the groups' sometimes polarizing stances. But on the main issues he remains resolute: He wants a phased withdrawal of troops from Iraq and opposes drilling off the Florida coast.

And as he switches his focus to the economic situation, Russell is recasting himself as a financial expert. He cites a previously undisclosed job as a personal financial adviser for American Express. He provided the name of a former boss who confirmed Russell worked there for less than a year in 1995 selling financial planning services.

And his plan to help put people back to work includes a crackdown on corporations that employ undocumented workers and advocates small-business tax breaks — two issues his conservative opponent often mentions.

On the issues, the candidates do have significant distinctions, but Russell is struggling to make the case because Brown-Waite is avoiding political debates and candidate forums where he is scheduled to speak.

But naturally, this doesn't deter Russell. It merely gets him fired up.

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

Virginia "Ginny" Brown-Waite, BrooksvilleRJohn T. Russell, Dade CityD
A native of Albany, N.Y., Brown-Waite, 65, moved to Florida 23 years ago. She began her political career as a legislative assistant in New York. She then served as a Hernando County commissioner starting in 1990 before being elected to the state Senate in 1992. She served 10 years in the Senate, the last two as the president pro tempore. In 2002, she was elected to Congress, defeating the Democratic incumbent after the district's boundaries were redrawn. She is now completing her third term in Washington. Experience Born and reared in Buffalo, N.Y., Russell, 52, moved to the Tampa area in 1995. He is newly married to Chyrisse Tabone, an environmental scientist. He is a critical-care registered nurse who works as a contract employee through Medical Staffing Network and another employer he would not name. He formerly worked at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa. This is his third try for Congress. In the 2004 election, he lost in the Democratic primary, finishing second in a field of four candidates. He won his party's primary in 2006 but lost in the general election.
Has called the nation's coverage "the best health care system in the world"; favors health savings accounts, tax credits for costs and purchasing plans across state lines to increase competition.Position on health care?Supports a plan that allows people to keep their private medical insurance, but one that provides access to health care for everyone.
Supports drilling offshore and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge but suggests "strong environmental standards."Position on oil drilling off the coast?Favors keeping the current restrictions banning offshore drilling, saying oil is not the answer to energy needs.
Touts that "much of Iraq is stable and under control of Iraqis" and opposes timetables to bring home troops, deferring the decision to military commanders.Position on Iraq war?Aligns himself with Sen. Barack Obama, who has called for a 16-month phased downsizing of the number of troops in Iraq.
Believes the first step is a fence along the nation's southern border and a greater number of law enforcement officials on all borders and ports of entry.Position on immigra-tion?Suggests an economic solution to the immigration issue by fining employers heavily for using undocumented workers, who he expects will return to their native countries when jobs are no longer available.





Brown-Waite vs. Russell in rematch for House seat 10/25/08 [Last modified: Friday, October 31, 2008 6:16pm]

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