A Democrat campaigning against a incumbent Republican lawmaker for a seat long held by the GOP is a tough sell. But Jason Melton faces a doubly difficult task considering that his name is not even on the ballot.
To vote for Melton in state House District 44, voters must fill the oval for Joseph Puglia, the Democratic candidate who left the race in September to care for his ill wife. (His withdrawal came too late to amend the ballot.)
Melton is challenging freshman lawmaker Robert Schenck, who served less than one term on the Hernando County Commission before running in 2006 as the hand-picked successor for David Russell's legislative seat.
The two men face a third-party contender who is not campaigning. Sarah Roman, 22, switched political affiliations and paid to appear on the ballot at the last minute as a Green Party candidate.
The seat is hotly contested by Republicans and Democrats. Look no further than the math for the reason: In 2006, Schenck won the seat by a mere 1,000 votes in a district nearly evenly divided in terms of party registration.
The challenge for Melton has been to introduce himself to voters and get his message across in a five-week campaign.
He brings a strong biographical story (rags to riches) and moderate political stance to the race (he's a former Republican) that gives Democrats a chance for victory.
"I think probably a conservative Democrat is perfect for that district," said Kevin King, a Democratic operative monitoring state House campaigns. "It's just a tough year for incumbents all around and then you factor in a do-nothing performance in Tallahassee and (Schenck) is going to be in for a long election night."
Melton comes from humble beginnings
Today, Melton, 34, is a partner in a successful private law firm in Spring Hill. He wears a refined suit, Burberry glasses and a watch with Roman numerals.
But it masks his humble roots growing up in Texas. His parents didn't graduate from college and his father struggled to support various failing business ventures throughout his life. "Frankly, I lived in very poverty-like experience for the first 15 to 16 years of my life," Melton said.
He put himself through Catholic University law school — and still has the debt to prove it — and started as a prosecutor in Miami. "I remember paying for parking with a bag of nickels," he said. "I had literally no money."
Melton came to Hernando County in 2004 to help manage the congressional campaign of Democrat Robert Whittel, his law partner, who lost to Republican Ginny Brown-Waite.
At the time, Melton was a Republican — one who started a GOP organization in college for lawyers and volunteered for George W. Bush's Texas gubernatorial campaign. He switched his affiliation to vote for Whittel and to reflect his changing perspective. But, he acknowledges, "I don't think my views have changed a lot."
After the campaign, he decided to make a home in Hernando and established a private law practice focusing largely on personal injury and DUI cases.
Melton still supports many ideals that would align him with conservatives, such as local control of schools, limited government and a tolerance for offshore oil drilling "if absolutely necessary."
He entered the race to give voters a choice, he said, and he talks passionately about his vision for Hernando.
Melton blasts Schenck for taking loads of corporate money but failing to bring any of those corporations' jobs to Hernando. Melton said the county needs to diversify its economy outside of the building industry and said he would lobby the lobbyists to direct jobs here.
As far as education, he wants to put more lottery funding toward the classroom and cut some of the bureaucracy in Tallahassee.
Melton handles many cases against insurance companies in his practice and holds strong views about their tendencies. He wants to replace the system of mandatory coverage against uninsured drivers, known as PIP, and wants to ban the practice of "cherry-picking," where insurance companies write some types of coverage but not less-profitable ones.
Melton is also promising better constituent service, a problem about Schenck that Melton hears often on the campaign trail. He calls Schenck's first term a "squandered opportunity."
"We've had such a void of leadership in the last two years," he said.
Schenck ready to make a bigger impact
Schenck, 33, acknowledged his rookie status in the House has not given him much clout. In two sessions, he has introduced 13 bills and saw one get signed into law — a consensus measure that cracked down on exploitative teen modeling agencies.
But now that he knows the process, he wants to leave a bigger mark.
"I could have filed better bills my first year — things that could have passed or things that would have been a better idea than some of the bills I did file," he said.
The married father of two started his political career by unseating incumbent Hernando County Commissioner Chris Kingsley in 2002. Schenck quit the post in 2006 to run for an open legislative seat.
Before this, he worked part time as a physician liaison for a St. Petersburg insurance company. He also taught at Central High School for three years.
He is a real estate broker and owner of the Novo Group, a Spring Hill firm, where he works with Ana Trinque, the chairwoman of the Hernando GOP.
Schenck won the seat with a platform calling for reductions in homeowners insurance and property taxes.
He blamed high insurance in this area on sinkhole fraud. He said the efforts to make sinkhole coverage optional will help lower premiums in the future, even though a number of homeowners continue to pay the higher premiums because they don't want to take the risk.
Schenck sat on the Committee on Insurance but missed many of the votes at meetings he attended, meeting minutes show. He said he probably had other meetings and it's not unusual to miss some, even though he was sometimes the only member absent.
On property taxes, Schenck played a significant role as vice chairman of the Committee on State Affairs, which handled the legislation.
"As a freshman and being vice chair, I probably got to have discussion and input into things that I probably shouldn't have had," he said.
He favored a number of changes to the way property taxes were calculated, including rolling back tax rates. One of these proposals would have cost Hernando County about $25.5-million in tax revenue. It ultimately failed.
Schenck also supported Amendment 5, which the courts struck from the November ballot because of misleading language. The measure would have eliminated most school property taxes for a higher sales tax.
The inaction left frustrated taxpayers with only a little tax relief provided by Amendment 1. Schenck said he would keep pushing for solutions in the next session. "I still think it's a big issue," he said. "I would like to see us go to a much more aggressive, more equitable system."
On other issues, Schenck said he favors drilling for oil 50 miles off the coast and wants to implement programs to improve the economy locally. He suggested enlarging work force retraining programs to help get people new jobs, better funding community colleges and expanding business recruiting in other states to bring companies to Florida.
John Frank can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 754-6114.