The last-minute jabs have come fast and furious in the waning days of the race in the 5th Congressional District.
As Election Day nears on Tuesday, Republican Richard Nugent's camp is trying to cast Democrat Jim Piccillo as a candidate whose views have shifted in the political winds.
Piccillo has countered those claims and fired back, contending that the Hernando sheriff lied when he said he didn't know his department had accepted federal stimulus dollars. He took a jab at Nugent's decision to enlist in the Illinois National Guard back in 1969. And he called the three-term sheriff as "liberal as Nancy Pelosi" when it comes to spending public dollars.
Piccillo, a small-business consultant from Land O'Lakes, was a registered Republican until 2008, when he changed parties and supported presidential candidate Barack Obama.
"He's trying to reinvent himself as a conservative," Nugent said. "The Obama message has lost traction and people have seen it what for it is, and he's trying to cast that aside."
"The only agenda that I am concerned with, and the only agenda I have, is the one where I'm working for the people of Florida's 5th District," Piccillo said.
He noted once again how Nugent got into the race — by quietly filing just before the deadline at the request of U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, the Brooksville Republican who has held the seat since 2002 but bowed out due to health reasons. And he said Nugent has missed more than two dozen campaign forums and events.
"I'm not interested in the ramblings of a puppet who doesn't even bother to show up when the people of the district want to hear where he stands."
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On Monday, Nugent's camp sent a news release titled "Remember in November: Whatever Your Position, On Any Issue, Piccillo is Your Guy." The release tried to show Piccillo had changed his stance on seven key issues.
Nugent charges that Piccillo changed his stance on federal income taxes, pointing to a Project Vote Smart Political Courage Test on which Piccillo said he supports maintaining tax levels for low- and middle-income families and a slight increase for high-income families. That doesn't jibe with the quote in a Sept. 21 St. Petersburg Times story in which he said he supports lowering taxes for individuals and small businesses, Nugent said.
Piccillo said the comment in the Times referred specifically to his oft-repeated stance on extending the Bush tax cuts, which he supports making permanent for families earning less than $250,000, and extending for three to four years for those earning more than that. If the country can't sustain that, Piccillo said, he would support returning the taxes for the wealthy to the previous levels.
Nugent charges that Piccillo flipped on the health care reform bill. Piccillo was quoted in the Times story saying that he would have begrudgingly supported the bill even though it tried to accomplish too much at one time, then a Citrus County Chronicle story earlier this month had him saying the bill should be repealed.
The Chronicle story contained an error, Piccillo said. However, he said he does support a repeal of the individual mandate in the law, which requires that all individuals who can afford health care insurance purchase a minimal comprehensive policy.
As for the charges that Piccillo has changed stances on the single-payer plan, he said he does support the idea in the abstract — when the country is "fiscally and socially ready" — but not in the bill passed this year.
On immigration, Nugent's campaign points to the Vote Smart survey and another candidate survey to show Piccillo supports amnesty for illegal immigrants, and then the Times story in which he was quoted saying he does not support amnesty.
NumbersUSA, a nonpartisan group that tracks immigration views of legislators and candidates and calls itself an "immigration-reduction organization," lists Piccillo as opposing amnesty in a side-by-side comparison of the candidates. Piccillo says he never answered any surveys for NumbersUSA and has tried unsuccessfully to get the group to amend its website.
The Vote Smart survey does not mention amnesty, but asks candidates if they support "a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants."
For Piccillo, that means requiring illegal immigrants go to the back of the line, pay a fine and back taxes, and take English classes.
"Simply because Rich Nugent likes to call a pathway to citizenship 'amnesty' does not make it so," Piccillo said.
The Nugent campaign also contends Piccillo has turned 180 degrees on earmarks. At a candidate forum at in Brooksville in August, Piccillo was asked if he would support a ban on congressional earmarks and, according to Nugent's campaign, answered "very much so." Then the Chronicle story noted that Piccillo had not signed a pledge to oppose earmarks and quoted him saying that he would use earmarks to bring a VA hospital to the district if he could.
Piccillo said he has not strayed from those stances. He generally opposes earmarks, but maintains that a hospital for a district with one of the highest numbers of veterans in the nation would not be a frivolous use of federal dollars. He said asking whether he would support banning earmarks is not the same as whether he has signed a pledge to ban earmarks.
Nugent says Piccillo has also changed stances on cap-and-trade energy legislation, citing a Vote Smart survey and the Times story. Piccillo says he does not support the current cap-and-trade bill because it too strictly regulates companies. But the Vote Smart survey asked if he supports a system to allow carbon producers to trade carbon credits under a cap-and-trade system, and he said yes.
"Allowing for the trading of the credits has the potential to create an entirely new business sector and commodity market, thus enabling an expansion of the free market," Piccillo said.
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In a story last week, the Times listed the federal grant dollars that the Hernando County Sheriff's Office has accepted since Nugent was elected sheriff in 2000. It included about $268,000 from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act last year that the Sheriff's Office spent on laptop computers, desktop computers, software and other technology.
Nugent, who has harshly criticized the stimulus bill as a wasteful mistake, said he was unaware until after the agency accepted the money that it was from the federal act.
Piccillo said that's hard to believe since the application for the funds clearly noted the money would come from the ARRA.
"Either he didn't read it, or he's lying to try to get elected, and either way it's political hypocrisy," Piccillo said.
Nugent dismissed that assertion, saying the money came through the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant and neither he nor his staff realized until later that the Department of Justice had included stimulus funds in the grant.
"Mr. Piccillo does not know of what he speaks," he said.
Piccillo, who served in the Army from 1996 to 2002, including roughly four years with the 101st Airborne Division, also took a dig at Nugent's decision to enlist in the Illinois Air National Guard. Piccillo said that on at least two occasions during the campaign, Nugent said he served in the Air Force.
"Any veteran, especially those from the Vietnam era, will tell there is a big difference between guarding the shores of Lake Michigan and risking your life in the jungle," Piccillo said Friday.
"That's an absolutely cheap shot and a cheap shot to all guardsmen," Nugent retorted.
He said the matter is one of semantics, and the notion that he is trying to mislead voters is "ridiculous."
"It's offensive," Nugent said. "What's the false impression? That at 18 I joined the military? We wear the same uniform. We went to the same basic training."
Nugent acknowledged, though, that he listened when his brother, who was already serving in Vietnam, advised him in a letter to enlist in the guard. But there was no guarantee he wouldn't be called up, he said.
"He said it would kill Mom to have both of us over here in Vietnam," Nugent recalled. "My brother's seven years older than I am, and I had just turned 18."
Piccillo says Nugent should reimburse the county for time taken off the job as sheriff to campaign for Congress. And he questioned the ethics of having staffers for Brown-Waite working for Nugent's campaign.
Nugent estimates that, all told, he has taken about two weeks off since joining the race just before the filing deadline in April. And he said he and Brown-Waite have both been explicit to her staffers that campaign work must be done on their own time.
"For him to suggest that is just ridiculous," Nugent said.
Piccillo also criticized Nugent for the growth of his department's budget over the years and for raising the salaries of state-certified corrections officers from $32,169 to more than $39,000 when his department took over operation of the Hernando County Jail.
Nugent said his budget reflects the amount needed to keep residents safe, noting crime rates have dropped in the past 18 months, and that the jail salaries needed to be raised to be comparable with surrounding counties and to attract quality staffers.
He also dismissed Piccillo's assertion that the campaign money he has gleaned from political action committees — nearly $200,000 as of the last reporting period — will make him toe the GOP line and be beholden to special interests. He pointed out that he received a little more than that from individual donors.
"I'm going to vote what's best for this district, then what's best for Florida and the nation," Nugent said. "The district has to be number one."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.