Christopher Shepard, an enthusiastic young tea party activist, decided to run for office in House District 67 after hearing that the incumbent, Rep. Ed Hooper, would be term-limited out of his seat this year.
He was misinformed. In fact, Hooper is an entrenched Republican incumbent who's running a well-financed campaign for his fourth and final term in office.
Shepard is staying in the race anyway, setting up a David-and-Goliath contest in the Aug. 14 GOP primary. Voting has already started in the new District 67, which includes Clearwater, Largo and part of Pinellas Park. Mail ballots for the primary began landing in voters' mailboxes last week.
The winner will face a Democratic opponent in the November general election: Ben Farrell, who is a manager at Lenny's Restaurant in Clearwater, which is owned by his family.
This is a district that Barack Obama and Alex Sink won comfortably in 2008 and 2010, but Hooper has defeated Democrats before. He won by 20 points in the 2010 general election against an underfunded opponent.
Redistricting has nudged the district's boundaries to the south and made its mix of voters slightly more Democratic. District 67 includes most of Clearwater and Largo except for the westernmost parts. This year the district lost Safety Harbor, Feather Sound and a bit of Dunedin, but picked up more of Largo and a slice of northern Pinellas Park.
Study in contrasts
The differences between the two Republican candidates are stark. Hooper is 64, Shepard is 24. Hooper lives in Clearwater, Shepard lives in Largo. Hooper is a seasoned pol, while Shepard has no experience in Tallahassee. "I've driven through it," he said.
Hooper is part of the House Republican leadership and has voted with the leadership regularly. However, he's had differences with some of the more conservative members of Pinellas County's legislative delegation. He's also not a fan of the FCAT or more private school vouchers.
Before entering the House, Hooper was a Clearwater city commissioner and a longtime Clearwater firefighter.
Shepard is an Iraq War veteran who was deployed in 2007 to a combat infantry unit in Baghdad. Now he's taking classes at St. Petersburg College and plans to become an accountant. He just started working the floor at a local Sam's Club.
"I don't have a lot of faith in government," Shepard said. He's been knocking on doors, targeting repeated Republican voters. "It's like looking in a mirror when I talk to them about what they want."
Hooper has a massive fundraising advantage. As of July 6 — the most recent campaign finance reporting deadline — he had raised over $100,000, much of it in $500 contributions from Tallahassee-based interest groups. He's saving the vast majority of it for the general election.
Meanwhile, Shepard had raised a total of $200 — from his grandparents. Farrell, the Democratic challenger, had raised $2,660, most of it small donations from individuals.
Both Republicans say their top priorities are job growth and less government regulation. Both take tough stances on illegal immigration. Neither is in favor of eliminating Florida's "stand your ground" law.
Shepard wants to phase out Florida's business income tax. Hooper wants to cut red tape for people opening businesses by creating a "one-stop shopping center" where they can get all the state permits they need through one phone number.
There are differences in some of the candidates' views, though.
Internet sales tax: Hooper thinks an Internet sales tax for Florida is a "no-brainer." He says it's not fair to require local brick-and-mortar retailers to charge sales tax if online retailers don't have to. "This is not creating a new tax. This is just fair."
Shepard opposes an Internet sales tax: "I'm a big fan of free enterprise and capitalism. Just because there's a new market to tax doesn't mean you should tax it."
Property insurance: Shepard wants to make it easier for coastal homeowners to insure their homes through a company other than state-run Citizens Property Insurance. He wants to slightly reduce the risk to private insurers to get them to write more policies here.
Hooper thinks this is hopeless. "Allstate and State Farm are not going to come back to Pinellas County. Citizens is the one thing that's available to us who live along the coast." He's more concerned with keeping Citizens actuarily sound. State law caps Citizens' rate increases at 10 percent annually. Hooper thinks they'll have to rise higher than that, even though he knows people won't like it.
Transit tax: In the last legislative session, Hooper and Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, sponsored bills calling for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority to end its property tax rate if Pinellas voters increased the sales tax to pay for rail.
Hooper says he actually opposes a sales tax increase for rail. He said the bill was intended to prevent "double taxation" from PSTA.
But the South Pinellas 9/12 Patriots group and local Republican Reps. Larry Ahern, Jeff Brandes and Richard Corcoran opposed it because they feared higher taxes would bankroll rail. Shepard shares their concerns, saying the bill was intended to "grease the skids" and get votes for rail.
Meanwhile, the Democrat in the House 67 race is preparing for the general election.
"Regardless of party affiliation, the guys who are running the show up there don't have solutions," Farrell said. "What would happen if there were 120 legislators in Tallahassee who were all teachers? What would Florida look like the year after that?"
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.