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For insight on George LeMieux, look to his failed 1998 bid for office

Long before he was appointed to the U.S. Senate, George LeMieux wanted to be a Florida state representative.

But in what now can be called a brilliant career move, he lost that race despite knocking on 10,000 doors in an otherwise great year for Florida Republicans.

It was 1998. We watched Mad About You and followed every sordid twist of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Jeb Bush was on his way to winning the governor's office and Charlie Crist was in his first statewide campaign, a kamikaze mission for U.S. Senate against Democrat Bob Graham.

LeMieux, a 29-year-old Fort Lauderdale lawyer, thought he could win a Democratic-leaning House district in Broward County. (His 22-year-old campaign manager: Eric Eikenberg, who succeeded LeMieux as Crist's chief of staff in the governor's office).

As critics will point out in the days and weeks ahead, LeMieux has never held elective office. He has no voting record and calls himself a "Charlie Crist Republican," which could be defined as all things to all people all the time.

So it's revealing to go back and examine what LeMieux said and did in that 1998 race, because he does not sound like a garden-variety Republican. Far from it.

In fairness to LeMieux, the election was 11 years ago and he was running in the state's most liberal county — often called "the People's Republic of Broward County" -— and in a district with a large and politically active gay population.

How else to explain that LeMieux was on record in 1998 as favoring adoptions by gay couples, which today is still illegal in Florida. He was even willing to put the subject of gay marriage to voters in a referendum.

"If you're going to have such a fundamental change," LeMieux said, "I think the people would have to speak on it."

As I reported then, for the Miami Herald, "LeMieux is trying to siphon gay support away from (Democrat Tracy) Stafford without offending his Republican base."

As an inveterate pack rat, I still have a thick file of documents from that campaign, including the lengthy questionnaires LeMieux filled out for the Herald and Sun-Sentinel newspapers.

Here's what they show:

LeMieux opposed offshore oil drilling. He believed that smaller class sizes help kids and wanted a limit of 25 students in a classroom.

He favored a thorough review of sales tax exemptions — an idea anathema to many Republican politicians to this day. "Explore all tax exemptions," LeMieux wrote.

He advocated more spending on health care and foster children.

He wanted to impose limits on out-of-state campaign contributions to Florida candidates, and he favored holding elections over two days or on Saturdays to improve voter turnout.

Asked how an officeholder should be judged, LeMieux offered an answer that's apt to the situation he now finds himself in as Florida's caretaker senator with no track record in elective office.

"An evaluation must be made of the most serious problems that face the community, what the legislator has done to address those problems, and what results the legislator has achieved. An effective legislator is not one who finds the least controversial piece of legislation to champion . . . while ignoring the toughest battles the people care about most."

LeMieux lost to the incumbent Stafford, but he has often said it was the best thing that ever happened to him. He bonded with Crist instead and that made all the difference.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

For insight on George LeMieux, look to his failed 1998 bid for office 08/28/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 31, 2009 1:26pm]
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