CLEARWATER — Hot-button issues like offshore oil drilling and the "Taj Mahal" courthouse are shaping up to be key in the District 50 Florida House race. Experience and knowledge of the community are playing a part as well.
And then there's the fact that the Republican incumbent has raised nearly 90 times as much campaign money as his Democratic challenger — much of it from Tallahassee-based groups.
That's just one way that a couple of very different candidates are offering voters a study in contrasts in this Clearwater-based district, which includes parts of Largo and Safety Harbor.
Ed Hooper, the incumbent and a well-known political figure in Clearwater, is seeking a third term. He's part of the House Republican leadership and has voted with the leadership on a number of contentious issues.
The low-key Hooper, 63, says his priorities are jobs, schools, affordable property insurance and tougher immigration laws. Before entering the House, he was a Clearwater city commissioner and a longtime Clearwater firefighter.
Challenger Shelly Leonard, 37, is a relative newcomer who came to Clearwater from the Seattle area three years ago. She's a social worker, single mother and cancer survivor who says the Republican-dominated Legislature is broken and corrupt.
She blasts Hooper on the subject of oil drilling off Florida's Gulf Coast, although both candidates say they're opposed to it.
On the stump, Leonard links Hooper to disgraced Republican leaders Ray Sansom and Jim Greer, and criticizes Hooper's vote to fund the infamous $48 million "Taj Mahal" court of appeals building. She calls it "another Hooper blooper."
Hooper's response: "The budget is the budget. Whether I like components of it or not, you only get to vote on one budget. You either voted 'yes' to pass the budget or you voted 'no,' which would fund no education and no criminal justice. The Taj Mahal is bad, and somebody will fix that. But you can't vote a budget down and have the government come to a screeching halt."
Hooper has an overwhelming fundraising advantage.
As of Sept. 24 — the most recent campaign finance reporting deadline — Hooper had raised $83,000 and spent nearly $22,000 on his campaign. In contrast, Leonard had raised $940 and spent about $600.
This leads Hooper to wonder if the Democrats really consider Leonard to be a viable candidate. "Her own party has not exactly set the woods on fire stepping up to support her financially," he said.
Leonard calls her campaign "grass roots" and adds that the Democratic Party recently paid to mail her fliers to voters.
Most of Hooper's $83,000 war chest comes from a series of 145 donations of $500, the maximum allowed. Ten of those came from Clearwater. Many came from Tallahassee organizations like Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Home Builders Association.
Oil drilling votes
When asked if he supports oil drilling off Florida's Gulf Coast, Hooper answers, "No! I was one of very few Republicans to vote against the bill offered in the House during the 2009 session."
That's true. In a break from party unity, Hooper and other Pinellas Republicans voted against a 2009 bill that would have legalized drilling in Florida waters. The House passed it, but the Senate didn't.
But Leonard criticizes him for voting to adjourn a special legislative session in July without putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot to ban offshore drilling. "They refused to even let the people vote on it," she says.
Hooper, a deputy majority leader in the House, has a solidly Republican voting record.
In the last legislative session, he voted to require women seeking abortions in Florida to view an ultrasound of the fetus first. He voted for a bill declaring that Florida developers in urban areas would no longer have to pay for the impact of their growth on roads and traffic. He voted to make so-called "leadership funds" legal again, allowing direct, unlimited payments of cash to the House speaker and Senate president.
Hooper also has been working on health care for the poor.
He voted for the taxpayer-subsidized Florida KidCare program, which makes it easier for poor families to get health insurance for their children. He successfully fought for funding to save the Willa Carson Health Resource Center, which provides medical care to the poor in Clearwater's North Greenwood neighborhood.
As for Leonard, she isn't your typical candidate. For starters, she's a 37-year-old survivor of oral cancer.
She's divorced. Her two young sons have muscular dystrophy. She still owes money for student loans. She's been through a bankruptcy and has a negative net worth. She explains that, like most bankruptcies in the United States, hers was due to medical causes.
She's living at On Top of the World retirement community to care for an elderly aunt. Until last year she was a social worker for Gulf Coast Community Care, but she's on hiatus from work to run for office. Her priorities are jobs, schools and green energy.
"My tongue is scarred," she says, "but I have a strong voice."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.