BROOKSVILLE — Ask the candidates in the race for the Florida House District 44 seat why they are seeking the office and they both profess a lofty desire to serve the people.
Ask them about each other, however, and nicety vanishes.
Democrat Diane Rowden recites a litany of complaints about incumbent Republican Rob Schenck, starting with his vote for Senate Bill 6, an education reform bill that had riled teachers statewide, his support of oil exploration in the gulf, and his vote for a bill that included the opulent new Panhandle courthouse dubbed the Taj Mahal.
"While the unemployment rate continued to climb in Hernando County and foreclosure signs kept popping up daily, Schenck was insuring that a handful of judges would pound their gavels in luxury suites,'' Rowden said in a recent news release.
Schenck, in turn, eschews subtlety in a series of fliers that label Rowden an "indicted politician, removed from office.'' The ads reference a Sunshine Law violation in 1993 and her suspension from the School Board.
"I made a mistake 18 years ago. I apologized. I was penalized,'' she said, noting that since then, Hernando voters twice have elected her to the County Commission.
"People obviously have trust in me,'' she said. "They know I always put them first.''
Rowden points to her actions during the recent oil spill as an example. She met with local fisherman and contacted officials in Tallahassee to help secure a commercial fishing license extension.
"What it showed them was that somebody cared,'' Rowden said.
Schenck said he, too, was talking to state officials about the need for the extension. The difference, he said, was that he was working behind the scenes while Rowden had a friend set up a photo opportunity with fishermen at Hernando Beach.
"She likes to do things with a camera crew and I just like to do my job,'' Schenck said.
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Schenck said he is proud of the job that he has done in his four years in Tallahassee, pointing to legislation he supported to end "double-dipping'' by government employees who retire, start collecting retirement pay, then return to government jobs and collect salaries and new retirement benefits.
He also believes that with $6 billion slashed from the state budget in his time in Tallahassee, "We've done a good job as the fourth-largest state, not running the deficits like California and Kansas and others and making the hard choices to cut.''
With a state deficit of approximately $3 billion, legislators will have to look across the board to find cuts to make ends meet in the next session, he said.
Schenck does not support the plans for light rail systems and high-speed rail in central Florida. Instead, he said, transportation funds should focus on "more pressing budgetary concerns'' such as road network and road capacity issues.
He touts his plan to create jobs by providing more incentives for businesses to relocate, advocates cutting bureaucratic red tape for small businesses and supports the dismantling of the state Department of Community Affairs, which oversees growth management.
"Most of the DCA's functions can be done at the regional planning council level or the local level,'' Schenck said.
Schenck defends SB 6, saying teacher evaluations should include some component of student achievement and not just an administrator's subjective assessment of a teacher's performance.
He supports ending tenure for new teachers because "there are teachers who burn out, who are there too long and only survive because of tenure. The children of Hernando County don't deserve that.''
As for Rowden's criticism of his support of gulf oil exploration, Schenck said the issue is dead for now. He also countered Rowden's criticism that he voted to raise state license and registration fees by saying that, the following year, he tried to get those fees reduced but was unsuccessful.
While he acknowledges that the voted for the transportation bill that had the so-called Taj Mahal courthouse for the 1st District Court of Appeals tucked inside, he said that the following year he tried to stop the bonds to fund the building.
Schenck expressed displeasure with that $48 million courthouse expenditure. "It's disgusting,'' he said. "I've seen that building and it's sickening.''
He said he hopes the building can be turned into a more efficient use. "They judges certainly don't need such a plush headquarters. They need a dose of reality,'' Schenck said.
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A long-time resident of District 43, which is largely a Citrus County district with a strip in Hernando, Rowden recently leased a residence in District 44. The politics that allowed that peninsula in the middle of Hernando County to be carved out and put in a different district is one of the issues she hopes to tackle if she wins the job in Tallahassee.
District 44 includes most of Hernando County and portions of Pasco and Sumter counties.
Rowden is running for state House in the same grass-roots manner as her previous runs for public office in local races, "one handshake at a time,'' as she describes it.
As proof, she points to her campaign finance reports, which show nearly 200 more contributors, most of them small donors, and far less corporate and political action donations than Schenck has received.
In the most recent available reports, Rowden had raised $102,820 in contributions and in-kind contributions and Schenck had $158,078.
Rowden said that responsible legislators need to have input from all the key stakeholders before proposing sweeping changes like those in SB 6, the education reform bill.
She supports strong leadership from the state level to be sure that all the regional authorities and agencies work together to make planned rail systems connecting communities as useful as possible for residents.
Rowden said her opponent's stand on the DCA shows that he cares more for "big builders who threw caution to the wind and ignore the very real impact that out-of-control, unmanaged building will inflict upon us.''
Rowden said that while on the commission she helped lower the tax rate for property owners, and that Schenck works for the Republican Party, not the citizens.
She criticizes Schenck for not being a visible and accessible legislator at a time when the constituents have many needs. He does not reach across party lines to find solutions, she said, and her history of public service shows she can build consensus among diverse viewpoints.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.