The race for the District 3 seat on the Hernando County Commission has focused on fiscal philosophy, government services and jobs creation — at least until last week's revelation about Republican candidate Jason Patrick Sager's admitted affair with his media liaison.
Now, character and credibility have become part of the discussion.
The other two candidates in the race, Democrat Diane Rowden and no-party candidate Greg Sheldon, zeroed in on those issues as they reacted to last week's news involving Sager.
Sheldon said that as far as he was concerned, Sager's infidelity destroyed his credibility. Rowden said voters must consider character as they cast their ballots.
Sager at first denied the relationship with Danielle Alexandre. But when the Hernando Times showed him steamy emails between the two of them and between Ms. Alexandre and her friends, and told him of photographs and an explicit video provided by Ms. Alexandre's former husband, Sager acknowledged a three-month affair.
He said it was a mistake, that he was flawed and that he had sought forgiveness, especially from his wife, Stephanie. Since the admission, the Sagers have received an outpouring of compassion from supporters. Over the weekend, Sager told the Republican Party leadership that he and his wife had decided that he would stay in the race.
Sager won his place on the general election ballot by defeating incumbent John Druzbick by eight votes in the August primary. He says he is the best choice in the race because he is the only candidate who has a written plan for the creation of jobs, a plan vetted by the local business community.
A number of the county's banking, development and business leaders threw their financial support to Sager after the primary, contributing to his campaign.
His plan to bring more jobs to Hernando includes centralizing government review of plans for new and existing businesses, seeking out manufacturing and high-tech firms, cutting redundant regulations and stabilizing tax rates for commercial and residential properties. He opposes cash incentives to businesses because, he said, the county can't afford them.
Rowden, a former two-term commissioner, also says she believes the county must grow and diversify its tax base, and she says she has been doing that for some time by helping small businesses.
She cites her work to help the Hernando Beach fishing community after the BP oil spill by assisting with an extension in fishing license expiration dates and her assistance in connecting ATA Career Education, a school of allied medical training, with officials at Spring Hill Regional Hospital.
The hospital, she said, had been getting nurses from Orlando. With the school preparing to expand with a registered nursing program next year, Rowden said that connection was needed. The school places 90 percent of its students into jobs, all of which pay much more than the minimum wage.
Sheldon said the county needs to be working harder on economic development and that a better educated workforce would help draw business and bring down the county's high unemployment rate.
Construction workers and others need a nearby program offering adult technical education, Sheldon said. As a commissioner, he said, he would educate more people about the need for a technical program.
"I don't understand why we've been lagging behind'' Citrus and Pasco counties, which have these kinds of programs, he said.
As a building contractor, Sheldon said he finds himself on the fence on the issue of impact fees and whether they should be reinstated.
Rowden said she believes the commission did taxpayers and businesses no favor by temporarily eliminating impact fees. She said growth should pay for itself.
Her opponents call her anti-business because she opposed several large developments during her previous time on the commission. Rowden counters that developers have responsibilities, too.
Several years ago, she notes, by refusing to grant Sam's Club a certificate of occupancy until the developer made promised road and traffic signal improvements, the county made sure it was protecting residents.
Sager is opposed to impact fees. He calls them "government expansion fees." While he doesn't disagree that a development should pay for its impact, he said the amount should be negotiated on a case-by-case basis.
Sager is also opposed to the county's fixed-route transit system, known as THE Bus. He said the county cannot afford the program, and he rejects the idea of taking federal funds to help pay the majority of the cost because it adds to the national debt.
He said he thinks about his 7-year-old son and his generation. "We are stealing from them, and we're not even slowing down,'' Sager said.
Sheldon embraces THE Bus, saying it "is crucial in current and in future times to show outside companies that we are set up to meet their future business needs.''
Rowden also favors THE Bus, noting that the county has a responsibility to serve the community. Bus service is a necessity, she says.
Rowden touts three decreases in the property tax rate while she served on the County Commission. She has been accused in Republican fliers of spending so much during her previous tenure that it "would make the liberals in Congress blush."
She said her record is the opposite. While the commission was dealing with an ever-expanding need for government services during the building boom, "at the same time we were being fiscally responsible, we made sure money was set aside in the reserves.''
Those are the same reserves the current County Commission has been using to cushion the blow of revenue shortfalls over the last few years, she noted.
Sager favors zero-based budgeting and has been critical of the way the county presents its budget information. He also wants more flexibility in setting some of the costs of government and hopes to promote charter government as a way to get a handle on expenses.
Sheldon wants the county to create an atmosphere more conducive to growth, and he believes that, in turn, will help improve the county's financial picture. Ultimately, he said, he would like the county to become a place where there is no longer a need to talk about closing parks and libraries or cutting other programs.
He said he sees his independence from the main political parties as a plus. On the other hand, Republican Executive Committee Chairman Blaise Ingoglia told Sheldon that, if he stayed in the race, Rowden was more likely to win.
Sheldon, whose campaign is largely financed by several local businesses and individuals, said that by staying independent, "I'm not swayed by a political agenda. I have the people more in mind.''
Rowden's campaign is also largely financed by local businesses and individuals, as well as the Teamsters union.
When she lost her seat four years ago to Druzbick, she was subjected to a barrage of negative campaign fliers put out by electioneering committees. One dredged up her 1993 suspension from the Hernando School Board for a Sunshine Law violation and her early 1990s bankruptcy and tax liens, long-since paid off.
One flier from her campaign this year touts her assistance to local businesses to create jobs while showing pictures of Sager dressed as Argentine Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara and the headline "Jason Patrick Sager is an embarrassment.''
Sager said the pictures were from a time when he was part of a street theater group in New York called Communists for Kerry, which was trying to make an issue of the fact that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry had been endorsed by the Communist Party.
"That part as an activist is behind me,'' he said.
There is also a write-in candidate for the District 3 commission seat: Tanya Marsh. Marsh, 51, is known around Hernando County as "Skater Girl'' for her jobs promoting local businesses while she roller-skates at major intersections.
A county resident since 2005, Marsh has worked in security, in skating rinks and as costumed characters. She said she wants to clean up government waste and has been working to establish a connection for THE Bus to Pasco County's transit system at the Pasco-Hernando Community College Spring Hill campus.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.