In late October, Carl Zimmermann got a phone call from Florida Democratic Party executive director Scott Arceneaux.
Zimmermann had just finished an interview with the Tampa Bay Times about the uphill financial battle he faced in his race against three-term incumbent Republican Peter Nehr for state House of Representatives in District 65.
Nehr, who had narrowly defeated Zimmermann twice before, again had much more money. While the state Republican Party had donated thousands to Nehr, state Democrats hadn't given Zimmermann a dollar.
That was about to change.
Arceneaux had just received the results of a poll that showed Zimmermann up 2 points, according to Zimmermann. (Arceneaux didn't return a call for comment.)
"What do you think it will take to win this race?" Arceneaux asked.
"If you just get me $10,000, I can win," Zimmermann replied. "I promise."
On Oct. 26, the state party gave Zimmermann $10,000, according to campaign filings. As Zimmermann reflected this week on his upset win over Nehr, he pointed to that money — combined with $5,000 Pinellas County Democrats gave him Oct. 23 — as the difference between his 2006 and 2008 losses to Nehr and this year's victory.
The $15,000 paid for a television ad — shot by Zimmermann in his garage and edited by one of his former Countryside High School broadcast journalism students — and a districtwide mailer in the race's final days. Nehr still outspent Zimmermann $188,000 to $47,000, according to the state Division of Elections, but Zimmermann thinks his late ad push clinched the win.
The TV commercial responded to an attack ad by the state GOP that called Zimmermann a used car salesman who supported a state income tax. Zimmermann owns a small used car dealership in Palm Harbor, but his primary job is as a teacher. And he doesn't want a state income tax.
Zimmermann also used the ad to remind voters of Nehr's past — his two bankruptcies, his former controversial ownership of an Internet sweepstakes cafe, and his shirtless pictures circulating online. Nehr says he took the pictures to demonstrate how he got in shape to battle diabetes.
Nehr downplayed the impact of Zimmermann's ad this week, instead guessing that the new makeup of the district hurt him. House District 65, which includes Palm Harbor, Dunedin, Tarpon Springs and parts of East Lake, is actually slightly more Republican than old District 48, which was changed by the state Legislature during redistricting. But Nehr wondered if people in places he hadn't represented before, like Dunedin, were swayed by negative fliers Zimmermann distributed.
"There might have been a change in attitude," Nehr said. "I'm not sure if they were unhappy with my performance or with me."
Mark Hanisee, chairman of the Pinellas Democratic Party, thought Nehr's negatives gave Zimmermann an opening in a district that should have been an easy win for the GOP.
"I think people just got tired of Nehr. He's got such a jaded past, I think it just caught up to him," Hanisee said.
Nehr, 60, spoke graciously in defeat this week, congratulating Zimmermann on "running a winning campaign." Nehr is unsure what is next for him; state representative had been his full-time job since he sold the sweepstakes cafe in 2011.
"As one door closes, another opens," Nehr said. "I look forward to the future."
State Rep. Ed Hooper, a Clearwater Republican who won his bid for re-election on Tuesday, said Zimmermann probably owes his victory, in part, to President Barack Obama.
"The Democratic Party overall had the luxury of the president's popularity and the 'get out the vote' campaign," Hooper said. "It made a big difference. They've learned well from the Republicans."
Like his former foe Nehr, Zimmermann also may have a career decision to make. He is discussing with his superiors how he will balance his new job in the Legislature with teaching. He hopes to keep teaching and get a long-term substitute when the Legislature is in session.
Once he gets to Tallahassee, Zimmermann's top priorities are education and homeowners insurance. He wants to overhaul how teachers and students are evaluated and tackle Florida's property insurance problems.
In 1990, a colon cancer scare prompted then-39-year-old Zimmermann to take stock of his life. He had only been a teacher for a few years and felt that he hadn't accomplished much. He decided to run for state House in 1992, as a Republican. He was trounced in the primary by R.Z. "Sandy" Safley.
More than 20 years later, 61-year-old Zimmermann has finally won his first term in Tallahassee. He hopes it's not his last. He said he has already reached out to area Republicans in hopes of forging partnerships to get his ambitious legislative goals accomplished.
"I want to be the most non-partisan person in Tallahassee," he said. "I just want to solve problems."
Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.