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Seek no gray area in race for District 51

Published Oct. 8, 2005

After the news about The Question hit the papers, Mary Brennan's political consultant flew down from Washington, D.C., and took her to task.

At a political forum this month, someone asked the state House candidates if they favored homosexual marriages. Carl Neuman, the Republican challenger in the race for District 51, answered no. Brennan, the incumbent Democrat seeking a third term in the Nov. 8 election, said yes.

The disapproving consultant told Brennan her response was a disaster _ she might as well wave a red flag at the state GOP and say, "Come get me!"

But Brennan says she is not sorry for what she said because she opposes all discrimination.

"I have been overweight all my life, and been discriminated against because of it," she said.

Now Brennan is carrying a different weight, the kind weighing down all incumbent Democrats this year: The burden of convincing voters they are not wild-eyed, tax-crazy, soft-on-crime liberals.

According to Neuman's campaign fliers, that description fits Brennan to a T.

"Miss Brennan insists that the only solution to crime is in crime prevention programs," one Neuman flier reads. "She does not acknowledge that there are criminals on our streets who belong in jail."

The fliers _ which include a particularly unflattering photo of Brennan and which make a point of the fact she's not married _ have infuriated Brennan. For one thing, she says, she has supported prosecuting repeat juvenile offenders as adults and creating boot camps.

Brennan says Neuman's fliers are so full of lies she calls him "Mr. Pinocchio."

When he heard the name, Neuman laughed. "My nose hasn't changed yet," he said.

This is one race where the voters in District 51 _ which includes parts of Pinellas Park, Largo, Clearwater and unincorporated Pinellas _ can't complain about lacking a clear choice. Everything about the two candidates is at odds, including their backgrounds.

Brennan, 40, of 5827 72nd Ave. N in Pinellas Park, is a native Floridian. Her family settled in Pinellas County because her father worked in a defense-related industry. A former St. Petersburg Times reporter and weekly newspaper editor, she previously was information officer for the city of Pinellas Park.

Neuman, 48, of 6111 Sundown Drive in St. Petersburg, is an insurance agent from Pennsylvania. He was drawn to Florida 18 years ago by his hobby, boating. "We were going to sail around the world, but it didn't happen," he said.

Both candidates have been stumping for votes door to door, campaigning on similar themes _ attacking crime, improving education. But as they have labored to win favor from the 51,676 registered voters in the district _ of whom 23,248 are Republicans and 22,630 are Democrats _ each has tried to portray the other as standing at the extreme end of the political spectrum.

Brennan calls Neuman "totally outside the mainstream." But Neuman says: "I don't think I'm as far to the right as she is to the left."

Still, Neuman has staked out some immoderate positions. In one flier he announces the state welfare system "must be dismantled."

"I would love to have a word less strong than that," Neuman said. "What I mean is "dismantle and rebuild.' "

He contended the state hands over $18,000 a year to the average welfare recipient with a family of four while paying state prison guards $16,800.

"This is an oversimplification," he said, "but if some of those people who are on welfare become prison guards, that could solve some of our problems."

Brennan says Neuman's numbers are flat wrong: The most a family of four could get from welfare is $8,400 a year. The welfare system should be reformed, she said, but not torn apart in a way that would hurt the elderly and handicapped.

(Health and Rehabilitative Services officials report that the maximum amount a family of four can receive in food stamps and aid to families with dependent children is $9,000 a year.)

Although they agree on the importance of education, the two candidates conflict sharply over the state's new education reform plan, called Blueprint 2000.

Brennan, who serves as vice chairman of the House Education Committee, praises the program, saying it hands control of the schools back to parents, teachers and community leaders. Neuman calls the program "the dumbing down of education" and says its goals are vague and unstructured.

They even disagree over their jobs. Neuman criticizes Brennan for being a full-time legislator. She holds no job outside the one she was elected to, and Neuman says that leaves her out of touch with the average worker.

But Brennan says her full-time status has not only enabled her to become deputy majority whip in four years. She says it has also allowed her the time to explore the state's problems firsthand _ sitting in on interviews with food stamp applicants, for instance.

As a result, Brennan said, she faces no conflicts of interest when she votes on bills _ unlike, she said, Neuman, an insurance agent. Neuman said he foresees no conflict in voting on insurance issues.

If dollars were votes, Brennan would win in a landslide. As of Oct. 11, she had collected $37,248.37 in campaign contributions, much of it in $500 lumps from political action groups representing hospitals, dentists, nurses, telephone company employees, teachers and real estate brokers.

She also received $500 contributions from a local sheet metal workers union, the Hollywood Greyhound Track, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and a major tobacco and food corporation, R.J. Reynolds of Winston-Salem, N.C.

As of Oct. 11, she had spent less than $8,000 of her war chest, leaving her more than $29,000 to pump into her campaign.

By contrast, as of Oct. 11 Neuman had collected $3,815, which he calls "anemic," and spent all but about $1,000 of it.

He received two $500 contributions. One came from the National Rifle Association, the other from Associated Industries, the powerful pro-business lobbying group.

Neuman says he wishes the state Republican Party would help him with some cash. But at a time when a lot of voters seem angry at Democratic incumbents, he may not need a lot of dollars to convince them the time is ripe for change.