Monday, February 19, 2018
Politics

State Rep. Ed Hooper takes on a Democratic challenger

Ed Hooper hasn't lost an election in more than a decade. But it has been years since he faced a challenger like Ben Farrell.

Hooper is a veteran Republican legislator who's running a well-financed campaign for his fourth and final term in the Florida House. He crushed a relatively weak and underfunded opponent in the 2010 election, and he ran unopposed in 2008.

But his current Democratic challenger, Farrell, is raising more campaign funds and attracting more support than Hooper's last opponent. And Hooper's district — District 67, which includes most of Clearwater and Largo — now has a more Democratic mix of voters due to redistricting.

On the stump, Hooper touts his experience in the Legislature. Meanwhile, Farrell talks of his years as a small business owner and says it's time for new blood in Tallahassee.

Hooper, who has raised a huge $216,000 campaign war chest, plans to be aggressive in sending multiple mailers to voters' homes, touting his own qualifications and questioning Farrell's.

"I encourage you to look at the records of those who think that incumbency is some horrible thing," Hooper said at a candidates forum in Largo last week. "I will do my best in the next five weeks to educate you on my qualifications and my opponent's qualifications. That's my job, and I intend to do that very well."

Some of those mailers will likely call voters' attention to Farrell's financial history as well as allegations his ex-wife made against him during a messy divorce six years ago. Farrell hopes it won't come to that, but he says he's prepared to defend himself.

The race

Hooper, 64, is a retired Clearwater fire lieutenant and paramedic, and a former Clearwater city commissioner.

Farrell, 50, is a manager at Lenny's Restaurant, a well-known Clearwater gathering spot that was founded by his late parents and is owned by his brother.

Both candidates talk relentlessly about the same thing — growing good-paying middle-class jobs in Florida.

"We're doing what is necessary to attract industry to this state," Hooper said at last week's forum. "We're going all over the country and the world, trying to entice companies to come here and create jobs."

The incumbent has a solidly Republican voting record and routinely votes with the House leadership.

Hooper voted to require women seeking abortions to submit to an ultrasound first. He voted to abolish teacher tenure. He voted to repeal decades of growth management law and hundreds of environmental rules in the name of economic development. He voted to create Florida Polytechnic University.

However, the low-key Hooper sounds a moderate tone and is not a favorite of the local Tea Party crowd.

He departs from GOP dogma on some issues: He's not a fan of the FCAT or more private school vouchers. He voted against oil drilling in Florida waters. He voted against random drug testing of state workers. He opposed an NRA-backed bill to let employees keep guns in their cars at work.

The challenger

Who is Ben Farrell? He's a U.S. Navy veteran who grew up in Clearwater and studied theology at the College of Charleston.

In their mid 20s, he and his brother Dan started Two Brothers Pickles, a Largo business that supplied pickles to restaurants and produce distributors. After seven years, they sold it to Chicago food manufacturer Vienna Beef Co.

Farrell moved to Scotland and learned to make fine furniture. He helped open furniture schools in South Carolina and Oregon. He moved back here in 2003 and went to work at Lenny's. He has three sons in public school.

"Like so many folks I talk with, I'm extremely unhappy with the current crop of career politicians in Tallahassee who rule unanswered, on behalf of large corporations, with a virtual stranglehold on power on the hard-working people, families and small businesses of Florida," he said.

War chest

Hooper has a massive fundraising advantage over his opponent. That campaign war chest will buy local television commercials on Bright House Cable, as well as several rounds of glossy mailers.

Some of those fliers will say that a credit card company sued Farrell for nonpayment, and a bank foreclosed on a house he owned. And during a 2006 divorce, Farrell's then-wife took out a domestic violence restraining order against him and accused him of having mental health issues.

Farrell says he settled the credit card lawsuit, and the foreclosed house was his ex-wife's. He says his ex-wife made false accusations against him during their divorce, which featured a lengthy child custody struggle.

"It's time to get your campaign out of the gutter," Farrell wrote in an open letter to Hooper.

Hooper counters that voters have a right to know: "I think it's important."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

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