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House District 44 stuck with unchallenged record

There is an inventory of Joseph Puglia campaign signs that will go unused in the coming weeks.

Puglia, a Democratic hopeful in the state House District 44 race, withdrew as a candidate the other day, citing his wife's ongoing health issues. Nobody will begrudge him putting his family before a political campaign. But his departure leaves a significant void on the November ballot. Unless another Democrat emerges nearly immediately, one-term state Rep. Robert Schenck, R-Spring Hill, now waltzes through a re-election campaign facing only a 22-year-old Green Party candidate who doesn't live in the district.

This district includes 2,633 voters in Pasco. Think of the wide open space north of State Road 52 between U.S. 41 and Interstate 75 — basically, Darby and the Traveler's Rest mobile home park in northern Pasco — and that's the area represented by Schenck.

For Schenck critics — and there are a lot of them — Green Party candidate Sarah Roman is no Sarah Palin, another unknown who energized a lackluster campaign.

We apparently won't be learning a lot about Roman. She said she lives in the San Clemente subdivision in unincorporated Port Richey, is a graduate of Ridgewood High School, works two jobs and attends college. Between working as the assistant director of the Salvation Army Community Center, waiting tables at TGI Fridays in Clearwater and going to Pasco-Hernando Community College two days a week, she said she has no time for a personal interview. Her only listed fundraising is a $2,000 loan to herself to cover the candidate filing fee. Schenck raised more than $151,500 through Aug. 21.

In written responses to a questionnaire from the Times, Roman said she wants more environmentally friendly policies coming from Tallahassee and believes the state needs to make public education a higher priority. Her youth, passion and energy are her attributes, she said.

Yes, but with no money to build name identification via mass media, no time to campaign, and no backing from a major political party, she is destined to lose — if she even wanted to win in the first place. Some suspected early on that Roman's candidacy is a simple ruse to pull votes from the Democrat.

That argument is irrelevant. Puglia's departure leaves no Democrat. Even with party officials scrambling late in the week to identify a replacement, Puglia's name will remain on the ballot.

You can't even run a campaign that says "Vote for Puglia.'' It is considered a deliberate attempt to mislead the voters. If a successor is named, he or she will have to campaign by saying, "A vote for Joe Puglia is a vote for me.'' It is an unfortunate situation that will confuse the electorate.

Too bad. Schenck is from the party that pushes choices and increased accountability. As this is being written, voters have no real choice while Schenck escapes accountability for his performance in office.

It was presumed to be a seat targeted by the Democratic Party. Schenck, with the high name identification accorded a sitting Hernando County commissioner, won this seat two years ago by just 926 votes even though he outspent his opponent by a more than 6-1 margin. His visible record of accomplishment is thin, having only one bill passed by both the House and Senate: a measure regulating content of Internet sites.

A sign of his potential vulnerability is seen by Schenck kicking his campaign into high gear much earlier than other incumbents who faced no primary opposition. Households already have received a half-dozen direct mail advertisements from Schenck and a bunch more are planned. (He explains that he always begins his campaign in June and this is the first time he faced no primary opposition.)

The lack of a credible opponent means Schenck's platform and voting record will not be closely scrutinized nor be a significant part of the public debate leading to the Nov. 4 election.

I'd like Schenck to talk more about his advocacy for no-strings-attached vouchers, allowing children to attend private schools absent public schools' accountability standards. Schenck's reasoning is that a child's education is a matter of parental choice and if they choose to use public money to enroll their child in an underperforming private institution, so be it.

This logic is akin to offering food stamps to the economically disadvantaged with no guidelines on how to spend them. Can you image the outrage if a legislator advocated a family's ability to blow the government-supplemented grocery budget on fast food and beer? All in the name of choice?

Or, his idea that high schools need to offer additional preparatory classes to improve students' readiness for college. Frankly, that thinking is contrary to what every School Board candidate in two counties has said during the campaign. They all press for a need for increased vocational training and the so-called career academies because roughly seven of every 10 kids don't head off to college from high school.

These are policy issues worthy of public dialogue. They certainly should be part of the legislative discussion considering how much education policy is handed down to the locals from Tallahassee.

But in the 2008 campaign, it looks like a discussion we won't be having in House District 44.

C.T. Bowen can be reached at [email protected] or at (727) 869-6239.

House District 44 stuck with unchallenged record 09/21/08 [Last modified: Sunday, September 21, 2008 3:37pm]
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