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District 51: Rumors of changes in party, ballot carry a grain of truth

SEMINOLE — At least two rumors began flying less than 24 hours after Republican Terry Sanchez dropped out of the race for state House District 51.

One rumor had the Republicans replacing Sanchez with Leslie Waters, who held the District 51 seat until she termed out in 2006. The other was a rehash of a rumor from earlier this year. This one had Democratic incumbent Janet Long switching parties after the election, making it unnecessary for the Republicans to field a replacement for Sanchez.

Both had at least a kernel of truth.

The Republicans did call Waters over the weekend and asked her to step in for Sanchez. Waters said she plans to make a decision in the next few days.

"I'm not pleased with Tallahassee," Waters said Tuesday. "I'll have to balance the decision to run and put my consulting business on hold."

Republican maneuvering over the District 51 seat has apparently gone on awhile. At least one Republican contacted Long earlier this year about the possibility of switching parties. Long said then she decided not to do so. She repeated that on Tuesday, saying she was elected as a Democrat and switching parties would be a kind of betrayal of voters.

With surprise announcements and backroom conversations, the District 51 race has delivered on its early promise of excitement. Republicans were said to be eager to recapture the seat Long won by a mere 561 votes in her 2006 campaign against former Seminole Mayor Dottie Reeder.

The first to announce for the seat was Bruce Cotton, a former Waters aide, who collected enough signatures to qualify. But when the deadline rolled around, Cotton did not qualify and Sanchez was the sole Republican candidate.

Even though Sanchez was a political unknown, the party was generous with funds. State records show she received about $28,200 in cash and in-kind donations from the Republican Party of Florida. That was the bulk of the $33,901 total she raised for her campaign.

Sanchez said Tuesday she decided to leave the race because she did not realize the toll a campaign would take on her, her family and her business, Pinellas Financial.

"I just had to make a decision for my family," Sanchez said. "Sometimes you have to make those very tough choices. (I) had to throw something off the ship."

Sanchez said she was at peace with her decision and hoped the community would understand her reasons for dropping out five weeks before the election.

The decision was made at an awkward time because the ballots, which have Sanchez's name, cannot be changed. Voters would have to be told that a vote for Sanchez was actually a vote for someone else. Convincing voters that was a good idea would be easier if the new person had name recognition. Waters, a former incumbent of the seat, who now has a lobbying and consulting firm, seemed to fit the bill.

And, Waters said, the party had been asking her for more than a year to run once again for District 51. She had refused in part because Cotton was a candidate and in part because she believed Sanchez would be a viable candidate. But when party officials contacted her over the weekend, Waters said she would consider because she was displeased with the way the Legislature handled certain issues, such as insurance, housing and budgeting.

"It is my thought that perhaps my eight years of legislative leadership and 29 years of business experience would be beneficial to the Legislature during these challenging times," Waters said.

Waters is a former insurance agent who also served as a corporate lobbyist. She represented District 51 for eight years. During that time, she was known as a strong supporter of the insurance industry's viewpoints. Since leaving office, she has opened Leslie Waters Government Relations and Floridians for Florida's Future. She consults with corporations and businesses on the best strategies for lobbying governmental bodies. Waters has also spent time lobbying on mental health issues in Washington, D.C., and has also lobbied the executive branch of Florida's government.

Waters agreed that waging a five-week campaign when her name would not be on the ballot would be tricky. She'd have some help from the Pinellas Elections Commission, which would notify voters that a vote for Sanchez would be a vote for Waters.

"It would be a unique strategy," Waters said. "You wouldn't even consider it unless you have great name recognition."

It's dicey running under the name of another candidate. Republican Joe Negron ran in place of Mark Foley for Congress in 2006 and narrowly lost, while Republican Will Weatherford ran for Ken Littlefield and won a Pasco House seat in 2004.

Long, meanwhile, said she's going to continue campaigning as usual.

"What else can I do?" she asked. "I'm not going to be thrown off my game."

District 51 winds through Pinellas County, covering Seminole and parts of Pinellas Park, Largo, South Pasadena and a sliver of the west Lealman area.

Times staff writers Steve Bousquet and Alex Leary contributed to this report.

District 51: Rumors of changes in party, ballot carry a grain of truth 09/23/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 24, 2008 7:44pm]

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