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Three Democrats battle in state House primary for District 44

The Democratic primary race in state House District 44 includes three candidates from differing backgrounds, all hoping to get a shot at defeating Republican incumbent Robert Schenck in November.

The contenders are Diane Rowden, who has served as a Hernando County School Board member and county commissioner and who prides herself on her constituent service; political newcomer Jay A. Thompson, who knows politics from the academic perspective as a political analyst and community college instructor, and perennial candidate H. David Werder.

Rowden points at a desire to continue serving the residents of Hernando County as her inspiration for seeking the seat. A resident of District 43, she defends her decision to run outside her district, saying she believes all residents of Hernando County deserve representation they are not currently receiving from either sitting representative.

District 44 covers most of Hernando County, but District 43 dips down into Hernando from Citrus County taking much of Royal Highlands, where Rowden lives, Brookridge, High Point and Lake in the Woods.

By the end of July, Rowden had raised $46,268 in campaign donations through 381 individual contributions.

For Thompson, the chance to run for the state House seat is an opportunity to demonstrate what he has long told his students: to get involved in the political process. The last couple of legislative sessions "horrified'' Thompson, and he said that is what convinced him that someone needed to run who could make the hard decisions without worrying so much about the political consequences.

Thompson's campaign war chest reached $3,179 from 43 contributors.

For Werder, the run for the seat is a kind of consolation prize. After more than a half dozen runs for various offices, he was focused on running again this year for the U.S. House of Representatives, but fell short on the number of petitions he could get signed by the deadline.

Even though he is still more interested in the federal position, Werder said he does have concerns about a number of important issues facing Florida's Legislature.

Werder had raised no money for his campaign as of the last required reporting period, state campaign finance records show.

Diane Rowden

Rowden points to her varied life experiences as a primary reason she believes she is well suited to be a legislator. A mother, caregiver, wife, liaison with health care providers, and a government servant with experience both with the schools and county government, "I'm someone who is diversified,'' she said. "I see the needs of people. … I like to help people in need.''

She is staunchly opposed to oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and points to her actions related to the Deepwater Horizon disaster as an example of how she will represent and serve her constituents at the state level. Rowden visited with local fishermen frustrated that the oil spill, while nowhere near Hernando's coastline, was still stopping people from buying their fish.

She was instrumental in pushing with them and securing an extension in the time they had to renew their state fishing licenses.

"What it showed was that somebody cared,'' Rowden said.

In general, she said she believes job creation and job retention will be what will begin to resolve the state's budget crisis. She said the Legislature must take a serious look at eliminating some of the state's sales tax exemptions while also exploring taxing Internet sales and services.

Rowden was opposed to Senate Bill 6, the bill denounced by teachers because of its impacts on tenure and pay. She argues that representatives need to be talking to their constituents about pending bills, something she said Schenck did not do in that case.

Even in the primary, much of her focus has been to blast Schenck and the current Legislature for their failure to solve the state's critical problems and understand residents' real issues. She said her goal is to restore public trust in the Legislature by replacing incumbents who have created a "climate of corruption and self-indulgence.''

In comparing herself to her two rivals in the primary, Rowden said she sees herself as the clear choice.

"I've got the experience dealing with the people, dealing with the issues,'' she said.

Jay A. Thompson

As a student of politics, Thompson said he felt the call to act and the need to lead his students by example when he watched the Legislature fail to address the most basic needs of the state.

"Florida is in a financial mess right now,'' he said.

Difficult choices must be made, and those are the ones that can cost politicians their jobs in the next election, Thompson said. But he said he doesn't care about that. Everything short of cutting the education budget must be considered, he said, even if that means cuts in other state services or increasing revenues.

He said he would seek to make government operations more efficient and that he would favor putting off any plan to spend money on high-speed rail.

"It's a luxury that Florida simply cannot afford right now,'' he said.

Thompson also did not favor Senate Bill 6, and he is no fan of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. He said he would favor scrapping the FCAT for some better testing alternative, possibly subject area semester exams written by experts.

For Florida's population to continue to grow — and industry and agriculture in the state as well — another water source will be needed, Thompson said. He favors expanding desalination. Learning from the mistakes made with the Pinellas County desalination system would be one place to start to find a system that would work better, he said.

Thompson also opposes oil drilling off Florida's coast and would consider tax breaks for people who use solar energy or other green energy alternatives.

He said he brings a "boyish enthusiasm'' to his run as the youngest candidate in the race. He also brings in what he considers an advantage, which is his role as a political newcomer, not part of the existing establishment.

H. David Werder

While the state House seat is not Werder's first choice for public office in 2010, he said he should still be considered a legitimate candidate because he was still willing to run. He was still willing to represent everybody.

Besides, he was a better choice than the candidate who raised fees on a variety of licenses and cigarettes in Tallahassee and "threw teachers under the bus'' in Senate Bill 6, Werder said, referring to Schenck.

He also isn't the candidate who was responsible for a number of county scandals, including the delays in cleaning up the contaminated public works site, approving the controversial Elgin Boulevard project or facing past charges of violating the Sunshine Law, Werder said, referring to Rowden.

Werder said he stood for protecting and empowering teachers, alternative sources of energy, a temporary halt on high-speed rail and a prorated cut of state worker salaries.

When asked how he would stem the state's budget shortfall, he said that "Florida needs to tighten their belt like everyone else.''

Dividend checks from the oil companies given permission to drill off the coast might be one help. Then Werder suggested "possibly taxing marijuana. Maybe we can tax the hell out of it."

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

About the candidates

Diane Rowden, 60, is a St. Petersburg native who has lived in Hernando County for 25 years. Elected to the Hernando School Board in 1990, she was suspended three years later for a Sunshine Law violation. She was elected to the County Commission in 2000 and again in 2004. She retired from Delta Airlines as a flight attendant and currently works as home health coordinator and community liaison for Nurse on Call. Rowden graduated from St. Petersburg High School and St. Petersburg Junior College and completed training through the Building Performance Institute. She has been involved in a number of organizations, including the Crescent Clinic, People Helping People, Rotary Club of Spring Hill Central, Love Your Neighbor and HPH Hospice. She and her husband, Jay, have a grown son and a grown daughter.

Jay A. Thompson, 31, was born in Utah and moved to Hernando County in 1990. He graduated from Springstead High School in 1997 and earned his associate's degree from Pasco-Hernando Community College. He earned his bachelor's degree from the University of South Florida in 2001 in international studies and his master's in political science in 2007. Trained as a political analyst, Thompson works as an adjunct instructor at both PHCC and the College of Central Florida. He has served on Brooksville's beautification and cemetery boards and is a member of the American Political Science Association. Thompson's wife is Michelle.

H. David Werder, 55, is a native of New Jersey and came to the area 21 years ago. He attended Orange County Community College and the Virginia Military Institute and worked as a self-employed trucker until he was disabled in an accident in 1993. He has made multiple unsuccessful runs for the U.S. House of Representatives, as both a candidate and a write-in candidate, as well as other public offices. In 2008, Werder successfully petitioned the state and had his name appear on the ballot as H. David "the flag pole sitter" Werder, commemorating his record-breaking stint sitting on a pole in Clearwater for 439 days to protest the price of gasoline in the mid 1980s. A member of ABATE of Florida and Toastmasters International, Werder is single.

Three Democrats battle in state House primary for District 44 08/07/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 7, 2010 1:39pm]

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