SPRING HILL — Former U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite is at a crossroads she didn't foresee a year ago.
Her health has improved to the point that she is considering another bid for public office.
The mass in her pancreas that prompted her to forgo a congressional re-election bid is still there, but it's not malignant. Word of her renewed vigor is spreading, and supporters are asking her to run, she said last week.
"Do I have a new lease on life? You better believe that I do," said Brown-Waite, 67.
In two wide-ranging interviews, Brown-Waite reflected on her eight-year congressional career, her health issues and the controversial decision to pick the candidate who would ultimately take her place.
Brown-Waite said she has been offered teaching posts and lobbying jobs, but she also hasn't ruled out a bid for local or state office.
She wouldn't say which office she might run for, but she ruled out some.
County commissioner, a post she held for a term in the 1990s: "I've been there, done that," she said.
What about supervisor of elections? In 1999, with two years left in her last term as a state senator, Brown-Waite announced she would resign and run for the supervisor's post in Hernando. Then she changed her mind, opting to challenge Democratic U.S. Rep. Karen Thurman for the District 5 seat.
"You break a sweat every two years," Brown-Waite said of the elections supervisor. "I could never be in a job like that. I'm too much of a Type A personality."
She said some have asked her to run for clerk of the circuit court. Karen Nicolai has held the post since 1988.
On this one, Brown-Waite hedged.
"That's … I don't know. The clerk of court is such an awesome responsibility, and Karen has done a great job," she said.
Nicolai on Friday said she probably won't run for re-election but hasn't ruled it out. Her decision will be based on the quality of the candidates who step up, she said. She declined to say if a Brown-Waite candidacy would satisfy that condition.
"She probably knows more about the job than most people do," Nicolai said.
A bid to return to the state Senate is also an option for Brown-Waite, though it's tough to speculate on which district she would go for because the Legislature will redraw political boundary lines before the 2012 election.
For now, Brown-Waite and her husband, Tony Selvaggio, are splitting time between Spring Hill and their summer house outside of Knoxville, Tenn., near one of her daughters and two grandchildren. She said she's determined to make up for family time lost while she served in Congress and will decide on her future later this year.
"You just never know," Brown-Waite said. "I promised my husband I would take six months off, and that's just what I'm doing."
• • •
Last April, Brown-Waite stunned a lot of political observers by announcing that health problems would keep her from running for re-election. She didn't mention her exact ailment, but she did say her pancreas was involved.
That brought to mind her late husband, Harvey Waite, who died of pancreatic cancer in August 2008. In fact, the mass was in the same location as Harvey's, and she started having similar symptoms, Brown-Waite said last week. Two different hospitals diagnosed her with cancer.
Brown-Waite made her retirement announcement just minutes after the filing deadline passed, throwing her support behind Hernando Sheriff Rich Nugent, who had filed at the last minute. She had asked Nugent — a Republican in the middle of his third term — if he was interested in running for Congress because she could not. Nugent agreed, honoring Brown-Waite's request to keep the plan under wraps until the filing period closed.
That angered many voters and other elected officials, including some in Brown-Waite's own party who might have considered running for the open seat. Nugent went on to win the primary and general elections by wide margins.
Meanwhile, Brown-Waite had scheduled surgery to remove the mass. Then she started feeling better, and one of her doctors suggested a third evaluation. At Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, doctors recommended keeping an eye on the growth, which was not malignant, they said. The mass has not grown.
Brown-Waite made no apologies at the time for how she picked Nugent, and she doesn't now.
"I asked Rich to run because I had worked with him in the past and always found him to be forthright and someone who cared about families, veterans and seniors.
"The voters have obviously endorsed my recommendation," Brown-Waite said. "End of discussion."
Hernando Republican Executive Committee Chairman Blaise Ingoglia said Brown-Waite has always served constituents well.
"It's a great thing that she's feeling better," Ingoglia said. "If she decides to get back into politics at any level, I think she'll serve her constituents well again."
He said he expects several Republican candidates to run for open state House and Senate seats in the region. State Rep. John Legg has already filed papers to run for the state Senate seat now held by fellow Republican Mike Fasano, who must step down because of term limits.
James Singer, chairman of the Hernando Democratic Executive Committee, called Brown-Waite a "potent force."
If she runs for a policymaking position, "I will oppose her with all my might and main," he said.
Clerk of court, though, would not be worrisome, Singer said.
"Blessings to her."
• • •
Brown-Waite counts the passage of an updated G.I. Bill in 2008 as one of her biggest accomplishments in Congress.
She sponsored the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act, which gives members of the National Guard and Reserves who are called to active duty the same opportunities for federal tuition assistance as members of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.
That was bittersweet, though. Brown-Waite ultimately voted against the bill because Democrats decided to pay for the benefits with a surtax of half a percentage point on incomes above $500,000, or $1 million for couples. But she was confident the bill would pass and the tax provision would ultimately be deleted, and it was.
She worked to get co-sponsors for a bill that allowed retired members of the armed forces who have a service-connected disability to receive concurrent payment of both retirement pay and veterans' disability compensation.
"I fought long and hard to get people on that bill," she said.
The Child Protection Act, signed into law in 2006, included three main components from Brown-Waite's proposed Jessica Lunsford Act. Among them was a requirement for local authorities to notify probation agencies immediately after a sex offender registers or updates registration.
She also takes pride in efforts that fell short of their goal.
Brown-Waite helped lead an effort to create a national catastrophic insurance fund, sponsoring a bill that passed in the House but died in the Senate. The national fund would have provided a safety net for state catastrophic funds in the event of a major hurricane, earthquake, drought or other disaster.
"As other states have major weather-related problems, they may very well realize the need for it," Brown-Waite said. "People thought it was just for Florida. It was for the entire nation."
She points to successful efforts to expand veterans clinics in the district, including one in Brooksville.
"No other Florida member was consistently demanding better service from the (Veterans Administration)," she said.
Brown-Waite voted with her party about 90 percent of the time, but some exceptions were notable. She supported stem cell research, and opposed federal efforts to intervene in the Terri Schiavo end-of-life case in Pinellas County.
She said she got the most pressure from leadership and the White House to support President George W. Bush's financial bailout package. She voted against both versions, citing concerns that the bill included support for foreign banks and raised the debt limit a trillion dollars.
She has some regrets. Among them was supporting changes to House ethics rules to allow Texas Republican Tom DeLay to remain as House majority leader if indicted for campaign money laundering. He was ultimately convicted.
"He had some very strong allies in the Texas delegation, including some former judges and prosecutors, who said this was a setup, and I fell for it," she recalled.
Brown-Waite drew fire in 2003 for filing a bill to allow families to bring home to "patriotic soil" the remains of fallen soldiers buried in France and Belgium. She made the move after France refused to support the war in Iraq.
She drew protesters to Brooksville in 2008 when a press release announcing her reluctant support of Bush's economic stimulus package called residents of the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and Guam "foreign citizens." She acknowledged at the time that "territorial citizens" would have been a better phrase, but she refused to apologize.
Last week, she said the line was a misstatement written by her press officer, and she missed it as she proofread the release.
Asked if she worried about the effect of those episodes on her legacy, Brown-Waite responded by describing the e-mails of support she has received from residents of the district since she left office.
"My constituents know I respect all nationalities," she said.
Particularly during her later years in Congress, when the Democratic Party gained control, Brown-Waite was a staunch critic of Democrats and especially President Barack Obama, voicing her opposition with sharply worded partisan rhetoric.
Politics has always been a "contact sport" in that way, she said, but she acknowledged that political discourse has become "downright nasty."
"I believe since the health care bill, it has gotten progressively worse," she said.
Asked where her rhetoric fell on the spectrum between civil and nasty, Brown-Waite replied: "I guess history will tell. I can't judge myself."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]