TALLAHASSEE — Casting herself as a "fresh face" not connected to what she calls a troubled Republican establishment, state Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland jumped into the race for governor Tuesday.
"If I can restore people's faith in government, I'm up for that challenge, and I'm willing to take it on," she said.
Dockery, 48, has scant statewide name recognition, has never run for statewide office, and is entering a race against Attorney General Bill McCollum, who's making his fourth statewide race in the past decade.
She said she began getting calls to run for governor from average citizens after last spring's legislative session. For a second time, she led the opposition to a plan by Gov. Charlie Crist's administration and Orlando-area business interests to spend up to $641 million to buy 61 miles of CSX rail lines for a Central Florida commuter rail.
McCollum, 65, has raised $1.9 million and has built an extensive statewide organization of volunteers. Former Gov. Jeb Bush quickly reissued his support of McCollum moments after Dockery declared her candidacy.
Dockery's maverick style will attract followers from voters fed up with politics as usual. But her criticism of the state's political culture, largely controlled by her fellow Republicans, may offend party regulars.
She referred to herself as someone "who is going to clean up the act in Tallahassee" and said many voters are frustrated with the Republican establishment. She also criticized the party for misspending money and misusing American Express cards doled out to party officials and powerful legislators — details of the expenses have not been made public.
"What needs to be done is to say, 'Hey, we've made mistakes. Let's lay it all out there. Let's get it in the sunshine. Let's share our credit card reports with you, and let's move on,' " Dockery said.
She criticized the Republican Party for "anointing" McCollum for the GOP nomination for governor and said voters are entitled to a choice without interference from party leaders.
McCollum dismissed Dockery as a serious challenger, and said he would focus on his Democratic opponent, Alex Sink, the state's chief financial officer. Asked why Republicans should vote for him over Dockery, he said a few hours before Dockery's announcement: "We're not going to get into hypotheticals right now. If Paula Dockery enters this race, we'll have that discussion."
Asked about enduring the time and expense of a primary that could be divisive, McCollum said: "I'm not going to wander down that path."
McCollum said he alone has the leadership qualities to lead the state with "experience and by example" during a very difficult time and improve the economic climate to create jobs.
Dockery, who was raised in Coral Springs and has a master's degree from the University of Florida, described herself as a fiscal and social conservative who is antiabortion and pro-gun with a record of supporting environmental programs.
A Catholic, she cited a 2005 award from the Florida Catholic Conference for her opposition to abortion. But she was one of seven Republican senators who joined Democrats to defeat a bill in 2008 that would have required pregnant women to be shown an ultrasound image of the fetus before getting an abortion.
With a net worth of $2.9 million, Dockery has the wherewithal to write a large check to eliminate her fund-raising disadvantage. She said she would first rely on donations from supporters. Husband C.C. "Doc" Dockery is a wealthy investor, who almost single-handedly financed a citizens' initiative to put a high-speed rail in the Florida Constitution. (Voters later repealed it.)
Dockery declined to take questions on issues Tuesday and said she would articulate her vision of Florida when she makes a hometown announcement in Lakeland next Tuesday. She declined to say whether she agreed with McCollum in supporting a federal hate crimes law that included protections for crimes motivated by a victim's sexual orientation.
Three Republican senators joined Dockery as she filed fundraising papers: Alex Villalobos of Miami, Durell Peaden of Crestview and Nancy Detert of Venice.
"I think Republicans want choices," Detert said, hugging Dockery outside the building housing the state elections division. "They're screaming for choices around the state."
Sink of Thonotosassa is unopposed for the Democratic nomination for governor. Anthony Shriver of Miami Beach, the founder of Best Buddies International, a nonprofit group that matches disabled people with mentors and employers, is reportedly considering entering that race. Shriver is a son of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.