BROOKSVILLE — It's all about making the most of five minutes.
With three minutes of introduction and two minutes to respond to two questions, candidates at the annual Hernando County Chamber of Commerce Candidate Forum have to think fast and speak fast to make an impression.
On Thursday night, an overflow crowd of more than 200 people in the Hernando County Commission chambers watched candidates for seats ranging from Congress to School Board achieve varying degrees of success in that goal.
The forum, moderated by editors from the Hernando Times and Hernando Today, opened with one of the most interesting races on the ballot this year: the Republican battle for the 5th District Congressional seat between Hernando Sheriff Richard Nugent and unemployed stereo installer Jason Sager of Brooksville.
When asked how he can claim to be a fiscal conservative when his budget went up more than 100 percent over the last decade — nearly twice the rate of population growth — Nugent used his oft-cited move to return more than $2 million to the county's general fund last year.
"Government just doesn't do that," Nugent said. "I make no excuses for providing the best possible services in law enforcement that I was elected to provide to this county, but being a conservative means you don't spend every nickel of that just because you have it."
He also noted that he plans to return $500,000 for jail operations after he takes over operation of the facility later this month.
Asked about his strategy on illegal immigration, Sager said he has already drafted a one-page bill that would make it illegal for the executive branch of government not to enforce the existing immigration laws.
"If that means impeaching the attorney general of the United States, than that's exactly what we're going to do," Sager said.
Both Nugent and Sager criticized the recently passed health care reform bill. Though Sager said he supports repealing it if Republicans can gain a majority, he said it's more realistic in the short term to cut funding for the law.
The forum offered a chance for a pair of familiar faces to get back behind the County Commission dais. Former Commissioner Diane Rowden is seeking to unseat Republican Rob Schenck, who is in his second term as state House District 44 representative. Schenck served on the county board at the same time Rowden did.
Rowden faces Jay Thompson, a political science at Pasco Hernando Community College, and perennial candidate David Werder in the Democratic primary.
Rowden said she is "infuriated" with the actions of the Legislature and its "total lack of concern" for Florida residents. A staunch advocate of sustainable development during her time on the commission, Rowden vowed to reach across party lines as a state lawmaker, but she struggled when asked about specific strategies she would use to balance growth management and economic recovery.
In response to a question about specific strategies she would support to balance the state budget, Rowden said she would push to close tax loopholes, especially in the corporate realm.
A political newcomer, Thompson tried to assure voters that he is a "longtime student of politics" and that his outsider position would be an asset. He said "everything should be on the table" when it comes to balancing the budget — except education funding. He said the state should postpone its light speed rail project.
"That will allow us to put money toward much more immediate concerns," Thompson said.
Werder, who has earned few votes in his past bids for office, drew an icy stare from Rowden as he ran through a litany of problems the county has faced in recent years, including the costly widening of Elgin Boulevard and the delays in cleaning contamination at a former public works compound. He also noted Rowden's violation of the Sunshine Law during her time on the Hernando School Board. The forum's format didn't give Rowden the chance to respond.
John Sweeney, who is fighting to keep the School Board's District 1 seat, bristled when asked about his support for former superintendent Wayne Alexander.
"What I was, in fact, was a staunch supporter of guarding the image of the school district," Sweeney said. "There were some gangs that needed to be busted, and he did well when he first came on. When his personal life became unmanageable, he had to go, and he knew it. We all knew it."
Sweeney's opponent in the nonpartisan race is Nilsa Colon Toro, a receptionist at Springstead High School. Toro said she would have supported a quarter-mill increase in the property tax rate for school operations, which the current board, including Sweeney, recently rejected.
"Education (funding) is the responsibility of the state, but if the state fails us, we as a school system need to step up to do something to ensure the education of our students is first and foremost," Toro said.
District 3 incumbent Dianne Bonfield defended her decision not to vote for the tax levy. Her opponent, Keane Chapman, has criticized the board for inconsistency but when asked to cite specifics, Chapman opted to take a dig at Bonfield's decision not to seek the endorsement of the teacher union after doing so four years ago. Bonfield did not get a chance to respond.
When asked about the district's magnet school admission policy, District 5 incumbent Sandra Nicholson said the district should begin admission at second grade.
One of Nicholson's challengers, Hernando High teacher Mike Bainum, said the board should have approved the quarter mill levy. The other challenger, former teacher and past teachers union president Cynthia Moore, said she could stand up to the union as a board member.
All three School Board races are on the Aug. 24 primary. The top two vote-getters in Nicholson's race will move to the general election if no candidate receives a majority of the vote.
Despite the county's ongoing efforts to cut budgets and reduce management, all three Republican candidates vying for the chance to face Democratic incumbent Commissioner Rose Rocco in the District 2 seat criticized officials for not doing more.
"I think we really need to look at realignment," said Wayne Dukes, a retired federal civil servant from Hernando Beach. "We need to keep workers busy and have the right management. I think we're over-heavy at the top."
"I would take an intense look at all budgets and all departments to see where to trim," retired New Jersey firefighter William Kingeter said. "I'm sure there's room."
When asked what his top priority would be if elected, Kingeter said he would seek to instill voter confidence in the commission, but failed to offer specifics.
"I'm not out to slash and burn, but we must reduce the cost of government," said Ty Mullis, a former project manager for a civil engineering firm.
Mullis tried to distinguish himself as the only one of the three candidates who has not worked for government.
"I've signed a lot more checks on the front than on the back," he said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.