Even before Steve Seibert won Thursday night's Republican runoff for a seat on the County Commission, Democratic challenger Gabe Cazares was on the attack.
Cazares mailed out more than 1,000 letters to Pinellas Democrats in the last week of September asking for campaign contributions because "my opponent in this race is backed financially by the special-interest machine that has dominated and controlled the Pinellas County Courthouse for over 25 years."
"In short," Cazares wrote, "my opponent is exactly the kind of candidate that self-serving, shortsighted land developers and their zoning lawyers put up against me every time I run for local office."
The letter drew a quick response from Seibert, who read it for the first time Friday.
"I think this is a bogus issue," Seibert said. "It didn't work in the primary, and it's not going to work in the general election. It's negative campaigning that isn't true and doesn't work.
"A lot of different people believe in Steve Seibert, and that includes the Sierra Club and the Fraternal Order of Police and various other groups," Seibert said.
But Cazares stood by his assessment in an interview last week and said he plans to send a beefed-up version of the letter to 16,000 targeted Democrats in the next weeks.
It could be a rough-and-tumble four weeks until the Nov. 3 election.
Cazares, who served on the County Commission from 1980 to 1984, steps into the limelight now that Seibert has dispatched Republican contenders Lee Regulski and Joe Mangus. Cazares has talked about the importance of having a Democrat in the all-Republican courthouse and his desire to amend the county charter to provide for single-member districts.
He now says, however, that Seibert's ties to development _ his occupation as a land-use lawyer and his campaign contributions from other lawyers and developers _ is his No. 1 issue.
"He's an excellent lawyer," Cazares said of Seibert. "He was in the county attorney's office when I was a commissioner. That's where attorneys belong."
Cazares also criticized Seibert's fund-raising in the last two weeks of the runoff, when Seibert collected $14,010.
"The special-interest money machine panicked when (incumbent John) Chesnut lost in the primary" and threw its money into Seibert's race, Cazares said.
Seibert has raised $57,757 and loaned himself an additional $18,258. Cazares has raised $10,962 and loaned himself $11,500.
Seibert denied having a political money machine and said he raised money the hard way: by getting lots of people to give him contributions and limiting their checks to $100. The money was needed to get name recognition, Seibert said, because he never has run for office before.
Cazares, on the other hand, has run twice countywide and served three years as mayor of Clearwater. He also is well known for his battles with the Church of Scientology, which led Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes and Phil Donahue to interview him.
Seibert said he has built a grass-roots campaign that has drawn cash from environmentalists as well as developers. While members of the Sembler family, which builds and manages shopping centers, have given him hundreds of dollars, he also has received money and endorsements from the Sierra Club; James Murley, the director of the growth-management watchdog group 1000 Friends of Florida; and St. Petersburg environmental lawyer Thomas Reese.
But Seibert's most recent campaign report shows that he has been able to find some creative ways to raise money without violating his self-imposed $100 contribution cap.
On Sept. 8, for instance, William R. Hough gave Seibert's campaign $100, while William R. Hough & Co. gave another $100. On Sept. 10, Continental Commerce Centers and Continental Business Properties Inc., each with the same 3340 Scherer Drive address, gave $100 apiece. On Sept. 23, the Fort Lauderdale law offices of Becker & Poliakoff P.A. gave $100, while that same day the Becker & Poliakoff PAC (political action committee) gave another $100.
Seibert said he has not violated his cap by accepting such multiple contributions from different corporate entities controlled essentially by the same people.
"It's not an attempt to circumvent anything," he said. And even with the multiple contributions, the totals fall well below what Seibert could legally accept: the state limit of $500 per person or company in each race.
Seibert said he would continue to talk about his issues of reopening county government to its residents and increasing discussion of the issues through cable television and occasional County Commission meetings held in communities other than Clearwater.
"I'm sorry that Gabe has started this campaign off by centering more on me than on his qualifications," Seibert said. "Maybe this is old-time politics rearing its ugly head. I hope not."