BROOKSVILLE — She's the four-term Brooksville Republican incumbent who, dogged by health problems, decided not to run for re-election. He's the Hernando County lawman she handpicked to gun for the seat.
On Monday, U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite and Hernando Sheriff Richard Nugent addressed criticism of how they handled her exit and his entrance into the Republican primary for the 5th Congressional District seat.
"My constituents have always been my first priority in Congress, and they were my first priority in this decisionmaking process," Brown-Waite said in e-mailed responses to questions from the St. Petersburg Times. "They deserve a representative that can give them 110 percent. Sheriff Nugent has always given 110 percent for his community and he will do the same as the representative of this great district."
Nugent qualified by paying the $10,440 filing fee just before the noon deadline on Friday. Minutes later, Brown-Waite announced that health problems would prevent her from running for re-election, so she asked Nugent to run instead. Critics said that cheated voters by denying other viable candidates a chance to enter the race.
Nugent will face 36-year-old Jason Sager, a self-described "Jeffersonian Republican" who is close to the tea party, in the Aug. 24 primary. The winner meets Land O'Lakes business consultant Jim Piccillo — the lone Democrat who qualified — in the general election.
The demographics in the Republican-drawn district — which includes Hernando, Citrus, Sumter and parts of Pasco, Polk, Levy, Lake and Marion counties — favor the GOP.
Among those who criticized Brown-Waite's tactics were Public Service Commission Chairwoman Nancy Argenziano and state Sen. Mike Fasano of New Port Richey. Both Republicans said they would have considered entering the race had they known Brown-Waite wasn't going to run. Argenziano, who held state Senate and House seats included in Brown-Waite's district, said she believed Brown-Waite's goal was to keep her and Fasano from running.
None of those who criticized her ever expressed interest in the seat, Brown-Waite said Monday.
"It's clear that these critics belong to the Charlie Crist wing of the Republican Party — their real concern is their personal political gain," Brown-Waite said, referring to the Florida governor who left the party last week to run for the U.S. Senate as an independent. "Not one of the politicians who made a negative comment inquired about my health. How callous and uncaring of them to think only of their next political step." She didn't give specifics about her health problems Friday but has said her pancreas is involved.
A followup question asking whether the move cheated voters out of a broader range of candidates went unanswered.
Nugent acknowledged Monday that the methods had made some people unhappy, but he said he was ready for the opportunity to run for Congress and deferred to Brown-Waite on how to make it happen.
"It was her seat," Nugent said. "Out of respect to her, we did it her way.
"We need to move on," he added. "Let's talk about the issues, why I'm running and what I plan on doing when I get to Washington."
If elected, Nugent would have to resign two years before the end of his third four-year term as sheriff.
Nugent said he had yet to assemble a campaign staff beyond a treasurer. He hired Nancy Watkins, a Tampa accountant and Republican activist who has represented dozens of state and local candidates including former U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez and U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis.
By Monday afternoon, Nugent was on a plane to Washington for meetings with GOP leaders. Nugent, who said he would limit most campaigning to nights and weekends, said Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the deputy minority whip, was on the list for a face-to-face meeting. Nugent expects to be back at work on Thursday.
While Nugent headed to the capital to test the political waters in Washington, the fallout from the announcement continued.
In an open letter to Nugent, County Commissioner Jeff Stabins chided Friday's "high noon theatrics" and criticized Nugent for the "clandestine deal that you and congresswoman Ginny Brown-Waite apparently made that effectively pre-empted other highly qualified individuals from entering the race for Congress."
Stabins urged Nugent to prove his mettle as a fiscal conservative on the local level by cutting his expenditures. Stabins said Nugent's cuts should focus on non-sworn and high-ranking officers at his headquarters, which appear to be half his spending.
"Please don't propose a budget this year that scares seniors about losing cops on the street or popular programs," Stabins wrote. By using that approach in his own budget, Nugent "can prove to the people that you are the right man for the job as congressman from Florida's 5th District," said Stabins.
Times staff writer Barbara Behrendt contributed. Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431.