BROOKSVILLE — Democrat Joseph Puglia, a once highly touted challenger to incumbent state Rep. Robert Schenck, withdrew from the race Wednesday, citing his wife's health.
"I couldn't represent the people of the district and be a husband fairly," said Puglia, who spoke by telephone from a hospital emergency room where his wife was being treated.
"She's been encouraging me to stay in the race. I appreciate her desire but I know in my heart I couldn't get in the car and drive to Tallahassee and leave her behind."
Puglia's campaign never really got off the ground as personal issues dominated his time in recent months. At first it was the sale of his business, and now his wife's health.
The departure gives Schenck, a Spring Hill Republican in his first term, a virtual lock on the district, which encompasses much of Hernando County and portions of Pasco County. Democrats and Republicans previously considered it one of the tougher contests in the state.
In November, Schenck will still face a challenger, Green Party candidate Sarah Roman.
But the 21-year-old novice, who apparently lives outside the district and joined her party the day she qualified for the race, is not considered by political observers to be a serious contender.
Schenck said he would still campaign aggressively for the seat and said his prayers are with Puglia's family. "I certainly understand his position, as a father and a husband myself," he said.
Puglia acknowledged that he faced an uphill battle. But local and state Democratic Party leaders were optimistic that the first-time candidate's biography as a "working Joe" would appeal to voters.
Incoming state House Democratic Party leader Franklin Sands played an integral role in recruiting Puglia, a 41-year-old retired New York police officer and United Airlines pilot. He recently owned a small business, Big Redd Carting, a local trash collection service.
From a political perspective, "it's disappointing," said Kevin King, a Florida Democratic Party official coordinating campaign efforts for the state House. Still, he added, "it's probably in his best interest to take care of some family stuff before running for office."
The timing leaves Democrats in a bind. King said they have until Saturday to find a candidate to replace Puglia, but he said he didn't expect that to happen.
Puglia announced his decision in a statement just before 2 p.m. He then went to a doctor's appointment with his wife, Marianne, 44. But they soon went to the hospital after she began experiencing chest pains.
He said his wife suffers from severe anemia, a blood disorder that requires frequent transfusions. But she is still undergoing testing and must see more specialists before her condition is fully known, he said.
Puglia kept the door open for a future campaign, saying in his statement that he would continue working "to make Florida a place where hard-working people can earn a living and where their families will be healthy and safe."
In an interview, he added, "I'm down but not out."
John Frank can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 754-6114.