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House candidates affirm themes before showdown

At the last forum for the Florida House in District 55, candidates returned to the themes that brought them there.

School social worker Rudolph Bradley, who weathered a difficult primary to emerge as Democratic nominee, once again told prospective voters that education is "the backbone of our society."

Charles Fleer, the Republican candidate, vowed to help revitalize the commercial corridors of southern St. Petersburg and northern Manatee County by attracting new businesses.

And Independent Grady Irvin renewed his pledge to place the values of people above the interests of political parties.

The three men are all that remain of a pool of eight candidates for the state House seat vacated last year when former Rep. Doug Jamerson was appointed state education commissioner. District 55 encompasses most of southern St. Petersburg, a piece of northern Manatee County and part of Hillsborough County.

The three squared off one last time Thursday night before a fairly sparse audience at Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. The forum was sponsored by the St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP.

The general election will be held Tuesday.

Bradley, who has been endorsed by Jamerson as well as the Classroom Teachers Association, remained faithful to his message that improving the education of the state's youths would improve conditions overall. At the final discussion of the campaign, Bradley hammered home his contention that young people cannot expect to earn a decent living without finishing school.

"I'm the person who is equating education and job skills as being one and the same," Bradley said.

"Education is the most important issue we are confronted with here in District 55."

But Irvin, a lawyer with the Cunningham Law Group in Tampa, said that providing a good education _ without improving the area's economic backbone _ would do little to solve the social problems of District 55 and the state.

Mocking Bradley's contention that education is "the key," Irvin asked: "My friends, I say the key to what? We have people with a good education who can't find jobs."

As he did in previous discussions, Irvin cast himself as the candidate who was willing to downplay the importance of partisan politics in favor of doing what is necessary to improve the lives of ordinary people _ particularly the elderly, AIDS patients and young people.

"These people are hurting," Irvin said, referring to older residents who live in substandard homes. "They laid the foundation for so many of us, for people like us. And I feel as though I owe them."

Fleer, a businessman who owns an advanced technology company, also returned to the theme he had emphasized throughout the campaign. Attracting new businesses and creating jobs is the only way to restore prosperity to the district, he said.

Fleer articulated a detailed platform that included a call for reducing crime, improving the state's educational system and ensuring the quality of the state's environment. But, he added: "I am opposed to anything that represents a tax increase."