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Three District 5 Democrats enliven the field

If you're a Democrat, here are your choices for Congress this year:

A candidate known as "Grandma" who crusades against state education testing and calls the United States a "communist country."

A candidate so confrontational he was banned for life from Disney for tussling with his own party's officials.

And a candidate who lost six previous long-shot campaigns but wants to run again because he is unemployed.

This snapshot illustrates the cartoonish nature and vulnerabilities of this year's Democratic field in the 5th Congressional District.

Republican Ginny Brown-Waite's seat is considered politically safe, but the three Democrats — Carol Castagnero of Lakeland, John Russell of Dade City and David Werder of Brooksville — sense an opening with this year's political tide.

They all represent unusual stories, largely defined by sharp personalities that trump their solutions to national issues.

Castagnero takes on FCAT

This is clear when talking to Castagnero, 69, the daughter of a coal miner, who is a retired public school teacher.

Her candidacy is the study of a crusader. In her case, the issue is children and education, particularly her fervent dislike for the Florida school testing program known as FCAT.

She describes her transition to activism from a classroom in a suburb of Pittsburgh:

"I was complaining about changes (in the school system) and we fought that," she recalls. "My (late) husband said stop complaining and do something about it. He was probably sorry to this day he did that to me because I've never stopped."

Known by her nickname, "Grandma Carol," she ran unsuccessfully for school board in her native Pennsylvania and in Polk County before making losing bids for the Florida Senate in 2004 and governor in 2006.

In the Democratic primary for governor, she earned 5.3 percent, or about 45,000 votes.

She also boasts that she does no fundraising and advertising, spending her savings and hitting the streets instead. It's a difficult strategy in a district that comprises eight counties, a swath from Pasco and Polk north to Levy and Marion.

To gauge the opinions of voters, she distributed an unscientific survey to about 3,500 people.

"I have allowed people to tell me what they want me to do," she said. "It's my Bible. It's what I take to Congress with me."

Asked if she has solutions to some of those problems, she said yes, but declined to share. "I'm not going to give them to Ginny Waite-Brown," she said, repeatedly misstating the incumbent's last name.

She can turn a question about campaign fundraising into a long diatribe that ends with a discourse on the need to abolish the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

"It's only a means of exploiting our children and using them as guinea pigs for profit, and it has to stop," she said.

Castagnero takes an isolationist view that foreign matters distract from these domestic "wars."

She immediately wants U.S. troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan. "We cannot continue fighting the other countries' wars," she said.

She also is peeved that China holds a significant chunk of the nation's debt. Instead of borrowing money, she asserted that the United States should collect all the debts owed it by other countries. "I know that we have to get back to being the United States and not a communistic country, which we are now," she said.

And she believes the influx of illegal immigrants is costing the nation too much money and depriving citizens of the American dream. She suggests a plan to put jobless Americans on the U.S.-Mexico border to prevent crossings.

Russell steps on party toes

As with Castagnero, Russell brings zeal to the campaign — though his fire often gets him in trouble.

He's quick to confrontation and juiced by a boisterous debate. It showed in his 2006 battle against Brown-Waite, which dissolved into verbal shouting matches and even a physical skirmish at public forums. (In the end, he took just 40 percent of the vote.)

Russell, 52, saves plenty of ire for state Democratic Party officials, particularly Chairwoman Karen Thurman for her lobbying ties to the former head of the state Republican Party.

In October 2007, he became combative at a state party event in Orlando when officials asked him to leave. The fracas ended with a trespassing citation and a lifetime ban from all Disney properties.

"I've demonstrated my character and integrity for taking on party leaders," he said of these incidents. "It says that I will stand up to anyone."

His candidacy is the story of a party pariah — one who now casts himself as the party's savior.

Russell, who was once a registered Republican, explains that he didn't plan to run this time — his third try for the seat — because party officials planned to recruit a stronger candidate. When none emerged, he joined the race.

"I'm actually stepping up to save the party from great embarrassment," he said. (Party officials dismiss his assertion.)

If his comments belittle his opponents, he doesn't apologize. He is already looking toward the general election, saying he is "very confident" he will get his party's nomination, despite meager campaigning.

In his mind, the election focuses on one age-old political maxim: Are you better off now than you were before? "I'm offering people a change in direction," he said.

His top issue is the Iraq war. He stands in line with likely Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama in advocating for the complete and safe withdrawal of combat troops in about 16 months.

But the issue where he speaks with most authority is health care. As an acute-care nurse who works on contract at various area hospitals, Russell said he sees the problem daily.

"With my background, I can understand the economics of these things and how they work," he said. "So I provide a much better advocate for people who need health care."

He favors a proposal to provide access to health care for everyone. He also supports allowing people to keep their private insurance.

"What I propose," he said, "is merely changing the financing as well as improving reimbursement and compensation for those professionals who care for us."

Werder veers from typical

For Werder, improving the nation's health care system is priority No. 1.

If elected, the 53-year-old pledges to make a difference by donating half his congressional salary — about $85,000 — to pay for prescription drugs for needy seniors and indigent residents.

It's his big line, the cornerstone to his candidacy. But it is easily overshadowed by the colorful candidate and his impolitic campaign style.

Look no further than his name on the ballot: H. David "the flag-pole sitter" Werder. (It's a reference to his 439-day stint atop a pole in Clearwater in the mid 1980s to protest the price of gasoline, among an assortment of other causes.)

He wears a trademark cream-colored jacket with matching Panama Jack hat, black suit pants and black dress shirt with a red tie, and white patent leather dress shoes. Combined with his bushy white beard, he stands apart.

At a recent election forum, he spent his allotted time telling jokes, explaining that he couldn't describe the nation's problems and his solutions in such a short time.

"I hope you'll vote for me not on the issues but on my personality alone," he told the laughing crowd.

He is the anti-candidate, making at least his seventh bid for public office and the fourth for this seat alone. In 2006, his best showing, he garnered about 5,100 votes.

At this point, the question is why he continues to run. He's quick to the joke: "Fame and fortune," he said, then acknowledges that, as a disabled former truck driver, he needs a job.

But dig deeper and more interesting motivations surface. "If Ms. Brown-Waite had helped me the first time I went to her for help with my Social Security, I might have been happy to sit at home," he said without explanation. Later, he added hints at a desire for public service: "It'd be nice to say down the line to be able to say that you did do something when history looks back."

Few voters see this more serious side, and his near-radical positions on many issues don't enhance his credibility.

He is one of the rare Democrats to support offshore drilling in Florida, though he would allow it only if the state's residents get a royalty dividend check.

Other extreme ideas include doing away with the income tax by replacing it with an enhanced import tax; a fence between Afghanistan and Pakistan instead of one on the U.S. border with Mexico; a national lottery to raise government revenues, and a military draft.

He also considers himself a territorialist. "Everything we own should be ours," he said. "Cuba should be a state; Japan should be a state. If we take these places over, they should be ours."

And he called global warming a theory — "Try telling Eskimos that there's such a thing as global warming" — but said he understands the need to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

He admits he's not a typical candidate. But then again, neither are his opponents.

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

Three District 5 Democrats enliven the field 08/13/08 [Last modified: Sunday, August 17, 2008 9:53pm]

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