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High-stakes District 20 race is anything but amicable

Published Oct. 12, 2005

As one of this year's most important and hard-fought state Senate campaigns nears its close, the candidates' battle of he-said, she-said is nearing its peak.

Either Helen Gordon Davis, the incumbent Democrat, or Charlie Crist Jr., the Republican challenger, will win election to the newly drawn District 20 Senate seat Tuesday. The district, which is pivotal to each party's hope of controlling the Senate, unites south Tampa with much of southern Pinellas County.

But the campaign has been anything but unifying.

Each candidate accuses the other of flip-flopping on issues. Both say the other is misleading voters about their positions and record.

And both have bombarded television screens and mailboxes with ads, leaving it up to the voters to decide who's right.

"It's the only negative campaign I have ever been approached with" in 14 years in the state House and four in the Senate, said Davis, 65, of Tampa.

"Even in my first campaign for the Senate, we discussed issues and not personalities. We just talked about what we would do for the people of Florida rather than throwing mud," she said.

But Crist, a 36-year-old lawyer from St. Petersburg, said, "Helen is running away from her record. She's obviously embarrased about her record. All I'm doing is putting information out that is factual, well-documented."

Neither candidate, however, has given voters all the facts in the abundant television ads, which have focused on issues from taxes to education to baseball.

Dueling accusations

A state income tax _ something prohibited by Florida's Constitution unless changed by the voters _ has nevertheless taken a central role in the campaign.

Crist says he would never support such a measure and that Florida needs fewer taxes, not more. Davis says she hasn't voted to support an income tax but believes tax reform is needed to bring more money for education and children's services.

Their dispute began in candidate forums and was fanned by television commercials from both sides.

Crist's biggest complaint stems from a Davis ad that features tap-dancing feet intended to symbolize Crist dancing around issues.

The commercial says Crist now opposes an income tax but once told the Times "a state income tax is probably on the way."

When asked to provide documentation of the charge, Davis' campaign sent a copy of a 1986 Times article that said Crist "winces at the talk of higher taxes but acquiesces to the possibility of a state income tax someday."

"It was attempting to attribute to me the clear implication that I would support a state income tax," Crist said of the ad. "It's a blatant lie."

Crist said an income tax would be possible "if people like Helen Gordon Davis get elected."

Davis said Friday that she thinks her ad is a fair representation of what Crist said.

But Davis, too, said Crist is misusing newspaper articles to twist her position on an income tax.

Crist has said in ads and on the campaign trail that Davis supports a personal income tax for residents making more than $25,000.

Davis denied it but said she does support a tax for individuals who make more than $100,000 a year.

"No legislator can impose the income tax on any person in the state," she said. "They have to vote to change the Constitution. I have never voted to put the income tax on the ballot."

To back up his assertion, Crist points to various news articles from the Times. One, written in January 1991, said Davis told reporters the answer to the state's revenue problems was "a state income tax, a services tax or some combination of both." It later said that Davis said an income tax would never pass without exempting certain income levels, and she suggested the figure be the "average teacher's pay," which is about $25,000.

Another article, from a November 1991 forum on education funding, quoted Davis as supporting a proposal for an income tax for individuals earning more than $50,000.

Davis said the articles inaccurately reflected her views and that she was simply discussing tax options and income levels, not endorsing them.

The battle over words and facts doesn't end with the tax issue _ it even extends to America's pastime.

Crist has boasted of his support for bringing baseball to Tampa Bay and his work on a baseball advisory council for U.S. Sen. Connie Mack.

A Crist television spot said Davis, whose Tampa district was redrawn with a majority of Pinellas voters this year, "voted against our stadium." The words "Opposed Stadium" appear under her picture.

But officials in St. Petersburg and Pinellas County were the ones who voted on the construction of the Florida Suncoast Dome.

What Davis voted against in 1988 as a member of the state House was a $30-million package allowing any community in the state that acquired a professional sports franchise to keep $2-million a year in sales tax revenue for the construction of a stadium.

The package also included an extra $15-million to the first community that signed a franchise. St. Petersburg, which was wooing the Chicago White Sox, and Miami's Joe Robbie Stadium were eligible.

Davis said she opposed it because the state was short on money for more important programs.

"I will never, during a recession when we're cutting out food for children, . . . think of ever voting for $30-million for any sports facility," she said. She said she supports baseball in Tampa Bay, and she and her son helped sell season tickets.

Davis did have some confusion in a recent interview about the baseball issue, repeatedly referring to the Sun Dome as the potential home of the San Francisco Giants.

The Sun Dome is the arena on the University of South Florida's Tampa campus. The Florida Suncoast Dome is St. Petersburg's baseball stadium.

Baseball comes up again in another Crist ad, which shows him playing ball with children in a park. He laughs with them, hugs them and talks about going to bat for Florida's families.

But none of those children, nor those who have appeared on the campaign trail with Crist, are his. Crist is divorced and has no children.

Crist said the children in the ad were nieces, nephews and children of friends. His nephews and sister stood with him campaigning one recent morning at a St. Petersburg intersection, but he said he wasn't involving the children to create the perception that they were his.

"I just know it's my sister who loves me very much and my godson and nephew who love me very much and are delighted to help me," Crist said. "I'm not going to not let my nephew and godson be involved in my campaign because somebody might think they're my children?

"If that hits somebody in a funny way, that's their problem, not mine."

Davis said she didn't think Crist's use of children in his campaign was deceptive but did say "he doesn't know the first thing about the issues that are confronting the children of the state." She has criticized his stance on education funding, saying his stringent anti-tax beliefs penalize children.

"That's ludicrous," Crist said. "I am deeply committed to children's issues. I have talked repeatedly about how we can help education and how we can properly fund it."

What's at stake

Both campaigns are spending thousands on television time in the final few days. Financial records showed the two candidates were nearly even in fund raising as of mid-October, with Davis having raised a total of $136,000 and Crist $145,300.

But Crist, who faced state Rep. Jeff Huenink in the primary and whose blue and white signs seemed to be everywhere early in the campaign, has far outspent Davis. He had only $18,000 left in the bank as of mid-October, campaign reports showed.

Davis, who began her television campaign after Crist, had nearly $80,000 left to spend in the final weeks of the campaign, records show.

The stakes are high in this race because the Republican Party has hopes of gaining control of the Florida Senate this year, and redistricting made Davis' seat more vulnerable. Most of the voters are in St. Petersburg, and Democrats have only a small edge in registered voters in the new district.

Margie Kincaid, chairwoman of the Hillsborough County Republican Party, said she thinks the GOP has a strong chance to win the seat.

She said Crist has a law office in Hillsborough and is better known there than Davis is in Pinellas.

"I think Helen Gordon Davis is going to have big problems," Kincaid said. "She's been there too long. She's as old as I am. She ought to get out and do some volunteer work."

But George Oster, political director for the Florida Democratic Party, said no one is giving up.

He said the party expects to "probably approach the legal cap" of $50,000 in support for Davis' campaign as it scrapes for every Senate seat.

"It is an important race to us. That whole area is critical to us in several races," Oster said. "It's one that we can win, and one that we have every intention of winning."