ST. PETERSBURG — The fire engine's horn blasted as it rolled down a street of aging cinder block houses and double-wide mobile homes, most surrounded by rusted chain-link fences. State Rep. Kathleen Peters, peeking out the window, sat behind the driver. She wore a Christmas-red, waist-length stocking cap that matched her lipstick and fingernails.
The engine stopped, and Peters climbed out into the Lealman neighborhood. She walked back to a U-Haul truck and approached a pair of firefighters unloading toys.
"Can I deliver the bike?" she asked, pointing to a small pink one with training wheels and "Lil Gem" on the handlebars. She lugged it up the street and approached a dark-haired girl wearing a purple sweater and no shoes. "Where's Madison?" she said. "I have something for Madison."
It was hard to tell on that Christmas Eve morning, her eyes clear and smile wide, that Peters' life outside of that moment had for months ranged from hectic to chaotic. A bid for federal office, alone, could throw anyone's life into disarray, but her political candidacy had not been the sole challenge.
In early July, Peters' father, who is 84, asked her to stay the night at his Treasure Island home. He didn't want to be alone.
"He has Parkinson's," she said recently. "And it's winning."
Peters, 52, agreed but still had a speech to write for a news conference the next day. When she arrived at his house, he gave her a list of things he needed done around the house. By the time she finished, around 10 p.m., she was exhausted. So Peters set her alarm for 4:30 a.m. and curled up on the couch, planning to write the speech the next morning.
Her father woke her up twice that night, once because he thought it was time to go out for breakfast. She slept through an alarm and, as she scrambled to take a shower that morning, the air conditioner sparked an electrical fire in the attic.
Firefighters quickly extinguished the blaze, and Peters still gave her speech at the news conference.
She has not slept a night in her own home since.
Four months later — still as her father's primary caretaker, as a state legislator, as the vice president of public affairs at the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce, as a mother of four boys, as a grandmother to four other boys — she decided to pursue the vacancy left by the late U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young.
Friends and family members already had seen her take on a heavy load in a variety of public and private leadership roles, and though she resigned from the chamber, they still wondered if she could — or should — take on something as onerous as a congressional bid.
"She's the last person that she thinks of," said her longtime friend Nancy Leach. "She forgets to take care of herself sometimes."
The oldest of her four sons, Chris, is helping manage the campaign and had the same concerns.
"To be honest with you," he said, "I'm not sure how she manages to juggle all that stuff together at the same time."
As she dropped off toys with the firefighters last week, Peters was asked how she manages so much.
One way: seldom sleeping more than four hours a night.
"I'm just one of those people that …" she said, pausing. "That's always taking on something."
Seemingly in contradiction with that reputation for diligence, Peters has at times not offered specific positions related to certain issues she might face in Congress. In several interviews, she has given vague answers on everything from abortion to U.S. House budgets, instead speaking in platitudes about the brokenness of Washington, D.C., and her ability to "get things done."
Peters recently acknowledged she's pro-life but said the issue is not a priority to her campaign. She also said her reluctance to provide concrete opinions on some subjects is easy to explain: She's just not familiar enough with all of them to know precisely what she thinks or how she would vote.
"Although it may sound like I'm being strategic and evasive, I'm not. I'm being honest," she said. "How can I give you an honest, thoughtful answer when it hasn't been vetted by me yet?"
Her campaign has focused much more sharply on her familiarity with and successes in Pinellas. Peters' roots in the community clearly distinguish her from her two biggest opponents, fellow Republican David Jolly and Democrat Alex Sink, both of whom have been labeled as carpetbaggers by critics.
Peters often cites her knowledge of the area's less prominent neighborhoods.
She knows Highpoint is among the most diverse places in Tampa Bay and that Greenwood is anchored by its community centers. She knows Lealman, where for two hours she delivered Christmas gifts, is plagued by high rates of domestic violence and teen pregnancy.
That morning, Peters had arrived a few minutes late to the Lealman fire station because, earlier, she had been on the phone with a funeral director.
One of her brothers had battled throat cancer, but he wanted to spend this Christmas with her family in Florida. Peters sent him a plane ticket, and on the Sunday before Christmas went to the airport to pick him up.
He never arrived.
A sibling's death would have left many unable to function for days, if not weeks. But Peters didn't stop. She couldn't, even as she made arrangements for his burial from 1,200 miles away.
In the fire engine, between delivering the third and fourth pink bicycles, she took out her cellphone. Peters grew quiet, and her smile faded. She was proofreading her brother's obituary.
John Woodrow Cox can be reached at [email protected]