First-time candidate Jessica Ehrlich already was facing an uphill battle by challenging longtime U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, an 81-year-old incumbent with more government experience and name recognition who has been re-elected since 1970.
But the past week has offered Ehrlich, a 38-year-old Democrat, a new level of difficulty.
On Sept. 19, Young announced he had changed his mind about leaving U.S. troops in Afghanistan until 2014. His call for an immediate withdrawal got a favorable mention last Thursday from MSNBC television host Rachel Maddow, an avowed liberal who might otherwise be more in sympathy with Ehrlich's politics. While Maddow handed Young some national publicity, Ehrlich's name never came up.
Then, on Monday, local political blogger Peter Schorsch, who is supporting Young, accused Ehrlich of padding her resume.
Schorsch, on his SaintPetersblog.com site, pointed to a line in Ehrlich's campaign literature about her time working for former U.S. Rep. E. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale. The literature and her website both say she was working as an attorney in St. Petersburg "before receiving an opportunity to work for then Congressman Clay Shaw (R-FL) on the Social Security Subcommittee of the Committee on Ways and Means."
While Ehrlich did work for Shaw for a few months in 2006 prior to his re-election defeat, she did not work on a subcommittee staff, Schorsch pointed out in a blog post. Schorsch, a campaign consultant, said he wasn't being paid by anyone to attack Ehrlich, although he said Young had bought $1,200 in advertising on his website.
The attack took aim at the part of Ehrlich's background that's a crucial part of her appeal to voters, her ready expertise in how Congress works. In addition to her work for Shaw, she also spent two years as an aide to a Democratic congressman, Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts, during which her website says she "served as counsel for U.S. Representative Stephen Lynch (D-MA) on the Financial Services Committee."
Ehrlich, in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, denied padding her resume. The wording wasn't intended to imply she worked for any committee, she explained. "I worked for the congressmen, but on specific issues," she said. "In general I worked for members of Congress as opposed to working for a committee."
She showed a reporter a letter of recommendation that Shaw signed in 2006 commending her for her work writing speeches and reviewing legislation for him on Social Security, banking and immigration, among other issues.
But Shaw told the Times that he read Ehrlich's website and believes she was indeed implying that she worked for the committee, which he said "is absolutely false. She exaggerated her position. She was not on the Ways and Means staff."
A spokeswoman for Lynch, Meghan Marr, said Ehrlich worked for the Massachusetts congressman "as counsel and was the primary staffer handling the Financial Services Committee, taxes and Social Security. The congressman said she did an excellent job."
Schorsch slammed Ehrlich again Monday with another blog post, accusing her of claiming on her website to have clerked for a judge when she was only an intern, then altering the wording to say "intern" after he questioned it.
"Yes, Ehrlich cleaned up her campaign web site, but that still doesn't explain how this little white lie got on there in the first place," Schorsch wrote.
In an e-mail to the Times, Ehrlich campaign manager Kiel Brunner called Schorsch "a Republican political consultant masquerading as a journalist" and contended that while in law school Ehrlich "was honored to be selected for a prestigious summer program as an intern clerking for Chief Judge of the U.S. Federal Court for Middle Florida in Tampa." Brunner's e-mail did not address the Times' questions about whether the website had been changed.
Young, who often says he has never run a negative campaign, has not openly criticized Ehrlich nor even mentioned her name in interviews with the Times. He is far ahead of her in fundraising — $524,000 to Ehrlich's $188,000 — and running television ads touting his work with veterans.
Adding to Ehrlich's challenges is the fact that her attempts to debate Young have been stymied by the congressman's disinclination to show up where she is, a common tactic for incumbents from both parties. Two weeks ago, when Young sent his son Billy to a debate in Gulfport as a surrogate, Ehrlich gave a brief spiel about herself and walked off the stage.
However, Ehrlich insisted her campaign is going well and she's talking to plenty of potential voters throughout District 13. She said she was not upset that Maddow had highlighted Young's change on Afghanistan because "she was pointing out a big flip-flop by one of the biggest war hawks in Congress." But she does wish Maddow had also pointed out that Young got an F rating from the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and voted for Rep. Paul Ryan's controversial budget plan. "If Rachel Maddow wants to have us on her show to debate," Ehrlich said, "I'm happy to do that."
Times staff researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this story. Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]