A week from Election Day, the District 3 race between Diane Rowden and John Druzbick has turned nasty, forcing both County Commission candidates to defend their previous tenures on the School Board.
The most negative attacks — possibly unprecedented in nature — are aimed at Rowden, the two-term Democratic incumbent.
A nebulous political group called the Committee to Protect Florida mailed fliers to Hernando County voters and created a Web site called DianeRowdenRealityCheck.com.
The Tallahassee group, labeled a 527 under the federal tax code, possibly received the money for the mailer from one of Rowden's longtime political enemies.
Titled "Voter Alert!" in stark black and white, it states that Gov. Lawton Chiles removed Rowden from the School Board.
The accompanying Web site includes a number of news articles and documents criticizing Rowden, including one about her reneging on a pledge not to take campaign money from those that come before the County Commission.
The group's fliers likely represent the first time a political committee of this breed tried to influence a Hernando commission race.
But a review of the record shows many of these attacks are misleading because they lack context about the incident.
The main point, about Rowden's term on the School Board, dates to August 1992, when a grand jury indicted all five members of the board for discussing public business in private with other board members.
The 18-member jury, culled by a state prosecutor she claimed was politically motivated, recommended removing two members, including Rowden.
She later pleaded no contest to 13 criminal charges and two non-criminal infractions for violating the state's public meetings law.
The flier and the Web site failed to mention that the Democratic governor's decision to remove her from the board was reversed by the state Supreme Court, which ruled Chiles didn't have the authority to oust a constitutional officer. The court, however, upheld Rowden's suspension.
In an interview Wednesday, Rowden said the attack rehashes 15-year-old material that barely came up in her previous campaigns and sensationalizes the truth.
"Did I make a mistake? Yes," she said. "Obviously the voters forgave me because I've served two (commission) terms.
"Why all the sudden is it an issue now?" she added later. "That's because they are in desperation."
She dismissed the mailer, saying it is typical heat she gets for challenging powerful interests. "It's the special interests, such as your builders and developers in Hernando County, that I've spoke up against," she said.
State records indicate that the Committee to Protect Florida is led by Roger "Rocky" Pennington, a prominent Republican operative at Southern Campaign Resources.
Neither Pennington, nor others at the Tallahassee firm, responded to numerous calls seeking comment.
The group is financed by an assortment of interests — Republican and Democrat; gambling and education — and most recently played a significant role in hitting opponents of state Sen. Charlie Dean in a 2007 special election. Unlike other political committees, it can take unlimited contributions.
Two of the biggest donations ($20,000 from DAB Constructors and $50,000 from the Florida Education Association) were intended for Dean's race — not Rowden's, officials from both groups said.
"Diane Rowden has done a fine job for Hernando County," said Bill Bachschmidt, DAB's vice president and Rowden supporter. "It's hard to find dedicated people like her to serve in public office."
The only Hernando County contribution to the group came from Business Development Strategies, which gave $1,553.21 on Sept. 23, records show.
The Brooksville-based firm belongs to Thomas Barnette, who lobbied on behalf of Hickory Hill, a 2,800-acre subdivision approved by the county in April 2007.
Rowden was the lone vote against the development and she has campaigned prominently as the "slow-growth candidate."
"I think a lot of it, too, is payback for Hickory Hill," she said.
Numerous calls to Barnette went unreturned. His secretary at his other business, a travel agency, said he was traveling to the West Coast on Wednesday and couldn't be reached.
Rival denies links
Druzbick, Rowden's GOP opponent in Tuesday's election, said he didn't know about the mailer or the Web site.
He denied involvement, but stopped short of condemning the campaign's negative turn. "I have nothing to do with this and I don't know who they are, what they are," he said.
Asked whether he felt these tactics were tarnishing the election, he said, "I don't have an opinion."
Campaign finance records show Barnette and his family are longtime supporters of Druzbick, dating to his School Board races and continuing with recent contributions to his commission campaign.
Druzbick wouldn't comment about a potential supporter being involved.
But in the interview, he did repeat a number of attacks mentioned on the group's Web site. Specifically, he claimed that Rowden took campaign money from people who appeared before the commission — even though she vowed she never did.
The Web site, and Druzbick, noted a $500 donation Rowden received from Bachschmidt, DAB's vice president, and a $200 donation from Tom Barb, the then-executive director at Brooksville Regional Hospital.
Rowden acknowledged she should have amended her statement to say she doesn't take money from developers.
Druzbick defends vote
At the same time, Druzbick is trying to defend himself after Rowden went on the offensive at the United Communities candidate forum earlier this week.
In her closing statement, she criticized him for spending "millions more of your tax dollars'' as a School Board member from 1994 to 2006 than the County Commission spent during that same time.
In those years, the school district's tax levy was at a higher rate than the county's millage, meaning county residents paid more property tax revenue to school coffers than to county bank accounts, budget records confirm.
Druzbick ceded this point. "I voted for pretty much every budget we had," he said.
Rowden also noted that, "he talks a good game about cutting costs,'' yet as a School Board member, he "approved multiple tax increases" while the county was cutting the tax rate.
She is pointing to Druzbick's support for two half-cent sales tax hikes.
Druzbick refuted this point. He said the School Board approved a referendum — meaning residents, not the board — voted to increase the tax to cover school construction in 1998 and again in 2004.
But he does acknowledge he personally voted for the tax increase and lobbied on its behalf.
John Frank can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 754-6114.