When Susan Cooper announced her candidacy for Hernando County School Board in February, the 35-year-old homemaker, bookkeeper and ranch owner was a genuine political novice _ virtually unknown, unseasoned, unsure of how to conduct her campaign. Gradually, Cooper has grown into her role as the Democratic candidate in District 5, where she will battle Republican Richard Drankwalter for retiring School Board Chairman Donald Hensley's seat.
After spending thousands of dollars and passing out campaign fliers to thousands of people, she is hardly unknown.
She has also learned a few things in the process.
"I'm less naive, definitely. I know more of what politics are ... in this county," Cooper said in an interview last week.
"Mason, McIntyre and Manuel _ they exert a lot of control," she said, referring to prominent lawyer Joe Mason, school Superintendent Dan McIntyre, and Cliff Manuel, president of Coastal Engineering Associates.
Although it is also his first try for public office, Republican challenger Richard Drankwalter has, in one sense, already been dealing with the public for a long time.
"I've been in the people business for 20 years," said Drankwalter, 46, who has been pastor of four Lutheran churches since he was ordained in 1970.
He moved to Hernando County four years ago with his wife and two children and plans to stay.
"My mom lives in Largo. My brother lives in Minnesota; my sister in New Jersey. They couldn't move."
Drankwalter's campaign theme is a simple two-word slogan blazoned on his posters: "I Listen."
"My real ability is to communicate with people," he said.
"As much as you're going to be concerned about the budget and teaching kids, my big concern is communications."
"There is mistrust there now," he said, adding that teachers have talked about fear of reprisals from administrators if they speak out too strongly against the administration.
Cooper, the president of Eastside Elementary School's Parent-Teacher Organization, says she wants to be an "independent and vigilant" School Board member. She criticizes what she says is undue collusion between the school administration, Mason and his clients, and Coastal Engineering.
When Coastal produced its study for a proposed renovation of Hernando High School, Cooper produced a detailed rebuttal, outlining what she said were serious flaws that inflated the price of the renovation work. Coastal in turn responded with its own rebuttal to Cooper.
Cooper became involved in the district's education system when her son entered kindergarten at Eastside two years ago.
But she entered the local spotlight for the first time last December, when she spoke out at a School Board meeting for higher teacher salaries.
Since then, she has hit hard at the lack of citizen input into School Board decisions as well as what she terms "skyrocketing administration expenditures."
"My educational background qualifies me to go over every report in detail, and review every expenditure," she said.
A former planner for the United Way of Dade County Area Agency on Aging, Cooper received a bachelor's degree from Tulane University in 1977 and a master's degree in social work from Barry College in Miami.
She and her two brothers each own one-third of a 640-acre cattle ranch in Hernando County. Her family also owns the eight-unit Oriole Villas in Brooksville, which are managed by Cooper's husband, Rodney.
Drankwalter, whose 16-year-old daughter is a junior at Hernando High School, has a masters of divinity degree from Concordia Seminary, one of the country's two training grounds for Lutheran ministers, as well as an undergraduate degree from Concordia Senior College.
About one-third of the roughly 125 contributors to his campaign belong to Brooksville's Christ Lutheran Church, where he is pastor.
Like Cooper, Drankwalter also believes the district's nearly $100-million annual budget could be spent more efficiently.
"Let's be practical. Maybe they (the county's new school buildings) have a few more frills than they need. ... Let's not build buildings which are only architecturally beautiful."
Although Drankwalter has been critical of the School Board's and administration's lack of communications, he has not been tough enough in other areas, according to Brooksville City Attorney Bill Eppley, who is Cooper's campaign treasurer.
"He doesn't say anything. Which leads me to some concern as to where he's coming from," Eppley said.
Drankwalter said he believes charges that he is too closely linked with the old-line Brooksville power base stem from his membership in the local Kiwanis Club, whose members include SunBank and Trust Co. president James Kimbrough and Mason.
"I'm really proud to be a Kiwanian," he said.
SUSAN COOPER, 35, a former United Way planner in Dade County, moved to Brooksville in 1982. She has been a volunteer at her church, a member of the Parent-Teacher Organization for three years, and is vice president of the Hernando County Youth Association. She received a bachelor's degree in urban studies from Tulane University in 1977 and a master's degree in social work from Barry College School of Social Work in Miami three years later. Cooper is vice president of the Hernando County Youth Association. She is married and has three children. ASSETS: Savings account, home, one-third interest in ranch. LIABILITIES: None. SOURCE OF INCOME: Husband's salary.
RICHARD DRANKWALTER, 46, the minister at Christ Lutheran Church in Brooksville, grew up in Queens, N.Y. He graduated from Andrew Jackson High School in Queens and Concordia Senior College in Fort Wayne, Ind., and received bachelor's and master's degrees in divinity from Concordia Seminary in Springfield, Ill. Before moving to Hernando County three years ago, he was pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Silver Creek, N.Y. He is treasurer of the Hernando County Youth Association. He is married and has two children. ASSETS: House, mutual funds, bank account. LIABILITIES: Mortgage, two personal loans. SOURCE OF INCOME: Minister's salary.