BROOKSVILLE — The man running to unseat incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson got a firsthand look Wednesday at Hernando County's sputtering cement industry.
In a carefully choreographed appearance, U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV used the Cemex plant off Cobb Road as a backdrop to tout himself as the industry-friendly candidate who can help get idled workers back on the job.
Mack blamed burdensome taxes and regulations "forced down our throats" for hampering the ability of companies like Cemex to recover from the recession.
"This has been an aggressive campaign on behalf of the (Obama) administration, the (Environmental Protection Agency) and others that is destroying jobs," Mack said as he stood in front of a cluster of Cemex workers in hard hats. A massive yellow dump truck and a front-end loader used to pull limestone from the nearby quarry sat strategically parked behind them.
Before taking questions from reporters, Mack rode shotgun in a sport utility vehicle as Cemex officials gave him a tour of the plant.
They passed by Kiln No. 1, idle since 2009, and drove under Kiln No. 2, which is currently operating at about 60 percent of capacity, plant officials said.
Cemex's Brooksville North plant, a few miles up the road, has been offline for the last three years. Both plants were running at the peak of the last decade's building boom. Then the recession hit, resulting in a historic drop in demand for cement that forced the company to lay off workers.
It was a "Great Depression," said Bob Sullivan, Cemex's director of government affairs.
Sullivan said Cemex invited Mack, but the company does not plan to endorse a candidate in the Senate race, and his appearance Wednesday doesn't imply a preference.
"If you check (campaign contribution) records, you'll see that we've taken a very, very even approach to supporting candidates in Florida in both the Senate and the House," Sullivan said.
Like fellow House member Rich Nugent, a Spring Hill Republican also on hand Wednesday, Mack voted last year for a bill that would have undermined tighter EPA restrictions on pollutants such as mercury spewed from cement plant stacks.
The measure died in the Senate, but the EPA agreed to push back the compliance deadline to 2015. Plants will have to monitor emissions once every three years instead of continually, as the earlier version required.
Asked by a Times reporter about that vote and the need to balance business needs with environmental protection, Mack replied: "I feel like the EPA is more interested in filling its own jobs by creating more bureaucracy and more government than it is in actually protecting the environment."
Nelson supported the extension, too. In a letter to the EPA this summer, he noted the "vital" role cement companies play in Florida's economy. The extra time, Nelson wrote, will give companies time to install technology required to comply with the stricter requirements.
During the brief news conference, Mack repeated his claim that Nelson has voted to raise taxes about 150 times since taking office.
PolitiFact.com, the fact-checking unit of the Tampa Bay Times, declared the claim false because Mack's tally includes nonbinding resolutions, which cannot change tax law, and multiple votes on the same legislation.
Nelson campaign spokesman Paul Kincaid emailed a statement Wednesday in response to specific questions from the Times.
"Sen. Nelson has led the way on making certain that Florida businesses are an equal stakeholder at the table with the likes of the EPA and other government agencies," Kincaid said. "In fact, it was Sen. Nelson who listened to Florida business stakeholders and made certain the EPA made some compromise on new water rules."
Dave Russell, one of three Hernando County commissioners who showed up Wednesday, served with Mack in the state House and called his former colleague "a great leader." Russell said he agreed with Mack's vote on the emissions rules and has more faith in him than in Nelson to ease rules and regulations. "I'd like to see someone more aggressive in the Senate, and I think Connie Mack will be so," Russell said.
Polls have shown Nelson with a sizable lead over Mack, who is hoping to receive a boost from presidential candidate Mitt Romney's post-debate resurgence. Mack enjoyed his largest haul yet in the fundraising period that ended Sept. 30, and out-of-state fundraising groups are injecting money in attack ads against Nelson. Nelson, though, will have $6.5 million on hand, far more than Mack.
They are set to debate at 7 p.m. Oct. 17 at Nova Southeastern University. The encounter will be broadcast live statewide.
Reach Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.