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Will Hernando Sheriff Richard Nugent become congressman in Ginny Brown-Waite mold?

It's been a while, but U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite used to be an independent and productive lawmaker.

During her decade in the Florida Senate (1992 to 2002) she stood up to big tobacco, the American Medical Association and leaders in her own Republican Party. Her laws made it easier for counties to defend themselves against outside water grabs and illegal for the builders of new subdivisions to force buyers to plant the thirstiest lawns.

And when the state Legislature came up with an especially stupid idea, such as storing treated sewage water in the aquifer, you could usually depend on her to speak out against it.

So, what happened?

Washington, basically, or at least the desire to be sent there from a district tailored for conservative Republicans.

It's true she stopped short of questioning Obama's citizenship and shot down the "death panel'' claim about health care reform.

Still, look back on her eight years in Congress and what you see mostly is fear-mongering.

You name the real or imagined threat — Muslims, French people, the supposed enablers of child molesters — and she played it up.

One episode sticks in my mind as especially offensive — Brown-Waite teaming up with Fox New Channel's Bill O'Reilly to attack State Attorney Brad King, of all people, for being soft on crime. Two defenders of fake threats (e.g. weapons of mass destruction) running down a man who built a career prosecuting real ones.

I bring this up because Hernando County Sheriff Richard Nugent's politics are a lot like Brown-Waite's before she went to Washington: conservative, certainly — he is a sheriff, after all, with three sons in the military — but not extreme.

If there have been instances of partisan grandstanding by Nugent, I don't remember them. He seems to have a sense of fairness, and in working with organizations like the YMCA and the building of a community center in south Brooksville, a realization that there's more to fighting crime than locking up criminals. His department's $32 million budget consumes more than a third of the county's general fund operating expenses, and with that comes the implied message that if you want good government, you have to pay for it.

So he's not a natural to appeal to tax-slashing tea partiers. It's hard to imagine him calling Barack Obama a socialist or claiming that every one of the president's policies, from stimulus spending to bank bailouts, is nothing more than a shameful handout.

But it's also difficult to see how Nugent succeeds in Washington — assuming, of course, that he wins — without obeying party leaders that only seem to care about obstructing Democrats. And after what happened to Charlie Crist, how can any Republican in Florida hope to win as a moderate?

Which is a shame, because it seems so obvious that that's what we need — someone who can work with members of the other party.

Right now, Nugent won't say much about his positions. It's impossible to know how much he will be willing to compromise his legacy for the sake of political advancement.

On the one hand, he says he wants to listen to voters and "won't take well'' to party leaders trying to tell him what to do.

On the other, he agreed to Brown-Waite's devious, last-minute qualifying plan that gave him the inside track on her seat.

It wasn't a good start.

• • •

Let's take a break from the discouraging topic of partisan politics for a story that began 36 years ago, when Pattie Stepbach taught a very tall, very bright third-grader named William Kenneth Alphin in Culpepper, Va.

Stepbach is the founder of Operation HeartFELT (Feeding Empty Little Tummies), which provides food for children from homeless families in Hernando County.

Alphin grew up to be "Big Kenny'' of the country music group Big and Rich, whose hits include the No. 1 Lost in This Moment.

After watching him perform recently at the famous Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Stepbach met him backstage and told him how proud of him she was for his career and his charity work. She mentioned HeartFELT, she said, and without even being asked, "He said, 'I'll tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to donate a concert.' I was shocked.''

Called "Up Close and Personal with Big Kenny,'' the concert is scheduled for 6 p.m. July 17 at the Brooksville Country Club at Majestic Oaks. Tickets for the fundraiser, which includes dinner, cost $100 and are available at Killingsworth Insurance, (352) 796-1451, and Westover's Flowers and Gifts, (352) 796-3519.

Will Hernando Sheriff Richard Nugent become congressman in Ginny Brown-Waite mold? 05/04/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 4, 2010 7:46pm]
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