BROOKSVILLE — Voters in northwest Hernando should probably buckle up. The race for your state House seat could get interesting.
Former Republican state Sen. Nancy Argenziano, a longtime Citrus County resident with statewide name recognition and a trademark plainspoken style, announced this week her plans to try to deny Inverness Republican Jimmie T. Smith a second term.
The move will give voters a stark choice of philosophies and present a formidable challenge for Smith, who won the District 43 seat two years ago on a tea party-fueled wave of anti-incumbent sentiment. The district was recently realigned and now includes a larger section of Hernando County.
"Nancy's scrappy," said Hernando County Commissioner Dave Russell, a Republican who served with Argenziano in the state House. "I sure as hell wouldn't want to run against her."
Critics called Argenziano, a lifelong Republican until last year, opportunistic.
"She's kind of like a sheep that has lost her way," said C.J. Dixon, vice chairman of the Citrus County Republican Executive Committee. "She's desperately trying to find a job wherever she can. Her core values have definitely shifted with the wind."
Argenziano, now an Independent, called that "hogwash," saying Hernando and Citrus supporters asked her months ago to challenge Smith or state Sen. Charlie Dean, an Inverness Republican. She said she still believes in smaller government and minimal intrusion into people's lives, but the GOP-controlled Legislature is swinging too far in the opposite direction, running roughshod over the democratic process as it aggressively pushes for measures that roll back environmental protections, undermine the public school system and privatize critical areas.
"I could take my state pension and do pretty well," she said. "It's not about that. Anyone who knows me knows I can't turn a cheek on what's happening. Voters need somebody with the testicular fortitude to go up there and be able to ring the bell and say, 'Look what they're doing.' "
Argenziano took a circuitous route to the state House campaign. She moved to Tallahassee in 2007 after then-Gov. Charlie Crist appointed her to the Public Services Commission. She garnered statewide attention in that role, voting in 2010 against the two largest utility rate increases in state history.
She was commission chairwoman when she abruptly resigned in 2010 and endorsed Democrat Alex Sink in the governor's race, saying she had to speak out to prevent the "noxious mix" of a Republican-led Legislature and GOP candidate Rick Scott. Argenziano was already scheduled to lose her job a few months later when the legislatively controlled PSC nominating council refused to consider her for another term.
Argenziano had planned to run for Congress this year as a Democrat. But she was thwarted by a procedural issue when she tried to change parties.
Smith will get special interest cash and party support, she said, but he is still a relative newcomer in a compact district that is about to get even smaller and includes her support base.
The renumbered and realigned District 34 includes all of Citrus and a larger section of Hernando.
Argenziano has a long list of specific criticisms of Smith, including his push for a law that allows for random drug screenings of state employees. The law is being challenged in court. Her announcement this week called Smith's justification for the measure "embarrassing" and called him a " 'go along' elected official who does what he is told."
Smith said he was disappointed by the tone of her rhetoric. He called the drug test law a "common sense thing" and he noted his success passing homegrown legislation, including a measure creating an economic enterprise zone in Inverness.
"Like it or not, Nancy has always spoken her mind, and it need not be about politics. It needs to be about doing the right thing," he said. "I'm trying to be the statesman."
Three Democrats have filed for District 43, but only one resides in the new District 34: Lynn Dostal of Homosassa.
Dostal, a 70-year-old exceptional education teacher at Gulf Coast Academy in Spring Hill, said Argenziano called him two months ago to warn him she may be running. He said he has not decided if he will stay in the race.
Reach Tony Marrero at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]