Before Marg Baker criticized Rep. Peter Nehr for his two bankruptcies, before Philip Tropea called Nehr a "fence-sitter," before Tory Perfetti said he'd fight harder than Nehr for illegal immigration legislation, the Republican candidates for the state House of Representatives in District 65 had to pick their seats.
It was Monday night at a candidate's forum at the Palm Harbor Library. Nehr, the three-term incumbent, took a chair at one end of the table. The other candidates sat to his left. But from the audience's perspective, primary challengers Baker, Perfetti and Tropea were all to the right of Nehr.
Exactly where they want to be.
Nehr, 60, is running for a fourth term representing District 65 (formerly District 48), which covers a Republican-leaning chunk of northern Pinellas County, including Tarpon Springs, Dunedin, Palm Harbor and part of East Lake. He faces three challengers in the Aug. 14 primary and they're all questioning Nehr's conservative credentials.
"I find it to be a very, very bad thing that a guy who says … that he shares many of the Charlie Crist philosophies is openly representing this district while saying he's conservative," Perfetti said in a February interview with the conservative Shark Tank blog.
To critics, Nehr points to the American Conservative Union's 2011 ratings of Florida legislators. Nehr is a "Conservative All-Star of the Florida Legislature," the union said, with a 100 percent rating for voting in line with conservative ideology that year.
"Every candidate who's not an incumbent says they are the true conservative," said Nehr. "I stand by my record."
The former Tarpon Springs city commissioner has experience, a slew of big-name endorsements and a massive money lead. He's raised more than $125,000, according to campaign filings. His three primary opponents have raised less than $5,000 combined.
Nehr had those same advantages in 2010, and 44 percent of primary voters chose someone else. Two weeks before that primary, Baker generated controversy when she said illegal immigrants should be housed in "camps" until they can be deported. She drew 20 percent of the Republican vote.
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Perfetti, 30, is a second lieutenant in the Florida Army National Guard who calls himself the "true conservative" in the race. He says there are two problems dragging down Florida's economy: illegal immigrants and a poor manufacturing base.
Perfetti, who lives in Oldsmar, supports toughness against illegal immigrants.
"They don't belong here. They don't exist," Perfetti told the South Pinellas 9.12 Patriots in January. "We have to remove them from society. I'm a full supporter of checking in school, police pulling them over — the whole nine yards. Alabama, Arizona (immigration legislation laws) go farther. We have got to remove them from this state."
Perfetti is working on his bachelor's degree in government relations at American Military University, an online school. He also works part-time as an account manager for GoodLiving magazine, a free publication based in Oldsmar, but his only declared income in 2011 was $5,469 from the National Guard. He also gets financial support from his mother, he said.
Perfetti has been endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police, Pinellas Lodge 43.
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Tropea, 74, a Palm Harbor retiree, cites political credentials dating to 1960s New York City, where he was a conservative activist but never ran for office.
To Tropea, the biggest problem facing this state's economy is Florida-only homeowner's insurance companies, which he would try to outlaw in the Legislature. He also thinks government is too big. When asked what he would reduce, he pointed to federal agencies like the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Education.
Tropea worked in New York, Connecticut and Florida as a design engineer in the aerospace industry, and in real estate, insurance and mortgage brokerage. He earned $30,336 last year from Social Security and a pension.
He was also an opera singer in his younger days, and he later wrote a self-published novel, Marco, based on his and his mother's singing careers.
"It's a marvelous story," Tropea said. "I have a lot of interests."
Tropea frequently speaks at Pinellas County Commission meetings and regularly writes letters to the Tampa Bay Times on a variety of topics, like the federal bailout of the auto industry, Egyptian politics and emergency response in Pinellas.
Also, alligators. He hates them.
"The alligator has no status and serves no purpose in our society except to kill and terrorize. It neither votes nor pays taxes," Tropea wrote the Times in July 2006 after an alligator ate a Shih Tzu in Largo.
"Wake up, Floridians, and petition your local state officials to rid our lakes of alligators … It could be you or your loved one next!"
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Palm Harbor retiree Baker, 71, declined to speak to the Times for this article. She earned $9,542 last year in IRA distributions and interest.
In a February interview, Baker said her top priority is stopping Agenda 21, a United Nations environmental compact that some claim is a global conspiracy to limit individual rights.
In the candidate's forum, Baker, a retired real estate broker, repeatedly criticized Nehr for his two bankruptcies.
Nehr filed for bankruptcy in 1991, he said, because he didn't have insurance then to cover the medical expenses for his son, who is mentally handicapped. He took the blame for his 2009 bankruptcy, though, for "poor business decisions" that led to the closure of his Tarpon Springs flag shop, which he had owned for 18 years. Nehr's only income now is his state representative salary, $29,151 last year.
"You put him in one more term, you won't be able to stop him," Baker told the crowd at the Palm Harbor Library Monday, though term limits would prevent Nehr from serving more than one more term in the House.
"At least he won't be able to run for president, because he was born in another country," Baker said of Nehr, who was born in Austria. "Unless he knows how to hide it, like the man we have in there now."
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Nehr is used to tough campaign battles. If he wins the Aug. 14 primary, he'll face a familiar foe in the Nov. 6 general election — Democrat Carl Zimmermann, who narrowly lost to Nehr in 2006 and 2008. The winner gets a two-year term and a $29,697 salary.
At Monday's forum, Nehr said he plans to propose legislation requiring the labeling of genetically modified foods in grocery markets. He also wants to bar schools from selling products containing high fructose corn syrup.
Nehr touts his seniority, and said that in his last two years before being term-limited out he could accomplish more than any freshman representative.
But first Nehr needs to get past those persistent critiques of his conservatism. He has broken with Republican leadership at times, like when he voted against Senate Bill 6, the controversial 2010 teacher pay and tenure legislation that former Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed, or when he continued to support Crist after he left the Republican Party and became an independent.
His support for Crist wasn't about ideology, Nehr said. It was about returning a favor.
Crist endorsed Nehr in 2008, when Nehr eked out a win over Zimmermann. Nehr endorsed Crist's 2010 run for U.S. Senate as an independent.
"He was there for me when I needed him. As a friend, I thought it was a loyalty issue," Nehr said. "It's just politics … There are people who will never forgive me for that, and that's fine."
Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.