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Candidates offer clear choice on issues

The two candidates running for the House District 59 seat in the Florida Legislature aren't averse to tossing a little mud in each other's direction. Brian Rush, the Democratic incumbent, calls his opponent a "one-issue candidate." Rush says his challenger wants to turn developers loose on the environment and intends to pay for growth by raising everyone's property taxes.

Polly Demma, the Republican challenger, says Rush is a "part-time politician who has helped make this state a mess." Demma says the incumbent has done little to improve Florida's educational system and says he is accusing her of being pro-development because she got the endorsement of local builders and he didn't.

Regardless of whom you believe, this much is certain: The Northwest Hillsborough voters who will decide this race are getting a clear choice.

And that suits both candidates just fine.

Demma, a former high school English teacher, is anti-abortion except in cases in which the mother's life is in danger. Demma also is anti-taxes and believes recently imposed restrictions on development are too strict. She says an improved education system could solve all of Florida's problems.

Demma, 36, says she decided to make her first run for public office because she was "fed up with government" and especially its approach to educating Florida's youth.

"I feel the problems we have with drugs, crime, the environment, abortion and high taxes can be rectified through the educational system," Demma says. "I'm real tired of Band-Aiding everything. I'd like to go to the core of the problem and work with our future, which is our children."

Rush, a 32-year-old lawyer who has served in the Legislature since 1986, supports a woman's right to have an abortion and is pro-growth management. He would like to see the elimination of wasteful government programs but says Florida probably will have to expand its tax base to meet future needs.

"I believe that I am a conservative Democrat who believes that government should run efficiently," says Rush, who is especially critical of state welfare programs that he says are helping to perpetuate "a huge underclass."

He says his opponent's belief that education is a cure for all the state's problems is nonsense, especially when it comes to crime.

"She thinks that you can educate people not to commit violent crimes," Rush says. "I think that's just liberal pablum."

As of the end of September, Rush had a slight edge in the money race. He had raised $64,000 in campaign contributions and spent $36,564.

Demma had raised more than $51,000 in contributions, including at least $1,000 from the Florida Home Builders political action committee and $28,000 in in-kind contributions from the Republican Party of Florida. She had spent almost $14,000.

Both candidates have hit hard on the crime issue, which both think is a top concern among voters.

Rush says he believes all dangerous felons should serve their full prison terms "or, at least, more than they're serving now."

"I've supported legislation that has allowed judges to double prison sentences for violent repeat offenders, and I've supported building 25,000 new prison beds so we would have the capacity to keep them in prison," he says.

Demma says she would work to make prisons more self-sufficient _ and tougher on inmates.

"At the state prison in Riverview they have keys to their own rooms. They have tennis courts, basketball courts (and) color television sets," she says. "Those prisons aren't growing their own food, and they aren't helping the environment. They aren't paying back to society anything."

Both candidates say they are pro-environment, but they have radically different feelings about the extent to which growth should be restricted.

Demma says she worked seven years for a developer, which she says "taught her that the issue is not just the builder and growth."

"It's also the homeowner, the construction worker, the painter, the lumber company, the mortgage companies, the insurer, the Realtors, the banks," she says.

"I recognize that there's a problem with (overdevelopment), but I believe that a majority of your builders are suffering as a result of a few really bad builders," Demma says. "That's why I think the restrictions need to be eased up a little bit. We are restricting an entire group based on what a couple have done."

Rush describes Demma as a "one-issue, pro-growth, development-oriented candidate."

"You don't preserve the environment by turning developers loose on it. That's stupid," he says. "The viewpoint that developers should be able to do whatever they want, or that growth management is too severe on them, that's baloney."