PALM HARBOR — There's a crowd of candidates gathering in state House District 48, where four Republican challengers are lining up to take on Rep. Peter Nehr.
Nehr, R-Palm Harbor, is running for a fourth and final term this year, and says he welcomes the challenge.
But his rivals apparently see him as a vulnerable incumbent, because he's drawing far more competition than his Tampa Bay peers in the House. Most local House incumbents — like Larry Ahern, Richard Corcoran, Ed Hooper, Rick Kriseman and Darryl Rouson — have no primary opponents at this point.
Nehr's opponents are a diverse bunch.
His latest challenger is Chris Sprowls, a 28-year-old prosecutor who's been busy with a murder trial this week. The others are Tory Perfetti, a 29-year-old National Guard lieutenant; Phil Tropea, a 74-year-old conservative activist and opera singer; and Marg Baker, a 70-year-old tea party candidate who lost to Nehr in 2010.
"There will be five of us in the primary. I have no problem with that. I've never had a free pass like other representatives have," said Nehr, 59. "I'm looking forward to having a spirited debate."
District 48 covers parts of North Pinellas and a slice of southern Pasco, but its boundaries will soon change.
The Legislature's current redistricting plan takes Pasco County, Oldsmar, northern Safety Harbor and parts of unincorporated East Lake out of the district. In exchange, the district gets Ozona, Crystal Beach, and the remaining parts of Dunedin and Tarpon Springs that it didn't already have.
The district will get a new number — 65. Although Oldsmar, Safety Harbor and the East Lake Fire District are opposed to the boundary changes, the redistricting map is slated to be approved in two or three months.
The primary is Aug. 14, and the general election is Nov. 6. Candidates must qualify for the race in June.
A couple of local Democrats are considering running for the seat, but they're waiting to see what will happen to the district's boundaries, said Mark Hanisee, chairman of the Pinellas County Democratic Party.
"With so much uncertainty about the boundaries, candidates aren't jumping in," he said. "They don't know what they're running for."
Surveying the field
Why would Nehr be vulnerable? He courted controversy last year when he opened an Internet sweepstakes cafe after he was asked to co-sponsor a bill regulating such places. He eventually sold the cafe. In recent years he's been through a divorce and a bankruptcy. He ruffled Republicans' feathers in 2010 by staying loyal to Gov. Charlie Crist after Crist left the party to run for the U.S. Senate.
But Nehr has advantages. He's a political survivor and a proven fundraiser. The anti-Nehr vote might get split up by such a large field. And Nehr has an independent streak, breaking with the Republican leadership on issues such as a constitutional amendment banning offshore oil drilling.
"A lot of people like the way I vote," Nehr said. "I'm independent enough to vote my conscience. I always have my constituents in mind."
Here are his opponents:
Marg Baker: This retired real estate broker from Palm Harbor ran against Nehr in the 2010 Republican primary and came in third with 20 percent of the vote. She's a Ron Paul supporter, and listening to Glenn Beck motivated her to run for office. She gained notoriety during the last election when she suggested putting illegal immigrants in camps; she now says her words were twisted. When asked about her priorities Friday, she said, "Stop the U.N. Agenda 21. You might want to head it up with that one."
Tory Perfetti: He's a 2nd lieutenant in the Army National Guard and an advertising account manager at Good Living, a family magazine based in Tampa Bay. He lives in the East Lake-Oldsmar area. With the changing boundaries, he knows he might have to move a half-mile west to stay in what he considers his longtime home district. He's an avid martial artist. He says he's fiscally and socially conservative, and his focus is bringing manufacturing jobs to Florida and stopping illegal immigration.
Chris Sprowls: An assistant state attorney in Pasco County, he lives in Palm Harbor. He has tried more than 40 jury trials involving felonies such as kidnapping, drug trafficking and murder. He recently convinced a jury to convict Betty-Jo Tagerson, the Hudson woman who ran over and killed one of a set of 5-year-old triplets. Sprowls' main issues are prescription pill abuse and the high cost of homeowners insurance.
Phil Tropea: Another Palm Harbor retiree and lifelong conservative, he regards Nehr as a "fence sitter" who won't take a stand. He opposes any annexation of East Lake and has complained to the Pinellas County Commission about rising EMS fees and other issues. "Taxation, I am sick of it," he said. He's also a tenor who sings everything from show tunes to opera.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151.