Earlier this month, at one of the many candidate forums held throughout Citrus, four Republicans took the stage about 9 p.m. Before them was a sea of empty seats.
The "big" races were finished. The sheriff candidates had spoken. So had the County Commission hopefuls and the judicial wanna-bes. Few people, it seemed, wanted to hear what the candidates for state Senate District 11 had to say.
"Can you hear me back there?" Al Cone asked to the crowd of folks milling about in the lobby.
If they could not hear that night, they certainly can now. This race has turned into a whopper.
Cone, Anna Cowin, Hope Lamb, Chester White Sr. and Gary Siegel (who does not attend candidate forums and was not present that night) are fighting for the right to take on Democrat Charles Dean in November. The incumbent, Karen Johnson, is running for Citrus school superintendent.
Cowin's campaign fired off the loudest salvo of the local campaign season this week when she mailed out a hard-hitting pamphlet that chided Cone for taking $18,000 plus in campaign contributions from trial lawyers who live outside the district.
Cone called the brochure "deplorable" and said he welcomed the trial bar's contributions. He declined to mount any sort of attack against Cowin, who has received considerable financial support from physicians.
The district covers east Citrus and all or part of Lake, Marion, Sumter and Seminole counties.
Cone was a prominent attorney who helped pioneer the state's personal-injury practice. He founded the Florida Academy of Trial Lawyers and once served as president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America.
But he has done much more. Cone also went to war and became a decorated World War II veteran, has owned and operated many businesses, taught law, run a ranch and developed a commercial fish farm.
Like many candidates, he lists crime, education, senior interests and health care as priorities. Cone speaks eloquently on those topics and others.
A sample: "Florida is not meeting its fundamental obligations to public education and, hence, not to our own future," he said. "We are failing in at least three ways: funding, creative thinking and the courage to make change. All three of these failures are interrelated."
Cone suggests better pay for teachers, an incentive system to encourage better teaching, more funding for schools and increased efforts to establish and support technical schools. He also seeks a moderate approach to welfare reform, one that provides aid to the most needy and reasonably brings the others into position to become educated and employed.
Tort reform is sure to be a major issue in the upcoming session and, as a plaintiffs lawyer, Cone might be expected to block any such legislation. He said he would not serve on any committee that considered tort reform, and he would not kowtow to his profession.
"I do not wear anybody's collar," he said.
Cowin does not agree. In her brochure, Cowin said she expects Cone to serve the interests of the trial lawyers if he goes to Tallahassee.
She, on the other hand, favors tort reform. Cowin, whose husband is a physician, has received considerable financial support from the medical community; she also has won endorsements from Associated Industries of Florida and from former state Sens. Vince Fechtel and Dick Langley, whom Johnson defeated in 1992.
As a Lake County School Board member from 1982 to 1990, Cowin earned a reputation as a hard worker and forceful community advocate. Among other things, she started a program that brings drug dogs into the Lake County schools to seek out drugs in lockers.
"Anna was a very involved School Board member," recalled Tom Sanders, the Lake school superintendent. "She kept up to date with what was happening in the school system."
If sent to Tallahassee, Cowin said she would work for education reform, a tough stand on crime and a stop to tax increases.
"Tax dollars are misused; welfare programs develop bureaucracies; people depend on government handouts; family units are destroyed. I say Stop!" she wrote in one brochure.
Lamb made an ill-fated run for Lake County Commission in 1994, attributing the defeat in part to a lack of political acumen. Now she's back, more astute, and ready to head for Tallahassee.
Lamb speaks forcefully on government intrusion, especially the issue of due process. A few years back, police in Brooksville left Lamb on the side of the road after determining, incorrectly, that her auto insurance had expired.
She hired a lawyer and won her license back that day. Still, the lesson served as a strong reminder that people in that situation, and any similar circumstances, must receive a fair hearing before the government seizes their property.
Lamb is co-owner of Lambs' Nursery and prides herself on helping run the operation. She understands that small businesses provide more than 80 percent of the jobs in America and thus is sympathetic to their needs.
"I have a lot to say. I have a lot of important issues I've been working on for two years," she told the Citrus Times editorial board recently.
Specifically, she would move to diminish government intrusion, remove unneeded regulations and return decision-making power to the local level.
Siegel served in the Senate from 1992 to 1994. During that time, he helped create the Department of Juvenile Justice, sponsored sentencing reform that required inmates to serve at least 75 percent of their sentences and helped toughen the standards for driving under the influence.
Siegel also made sure that a convicted murderer stayed behind bars when state officials thought that the man had to be released because of prison overcrowding, and he helped spearhead the fight for grandparents' visitation rights.
"I want to make a difference," said Siegel, a lawyer. "I did make a difference."
If elected, Siegel would concentrate on toughening the laws against elder abuse and fraud and would try to find ways to improve urban areas and their schools.
White is a former Citrus County commissioner who made his fortune building up his Stanley Steemer Carpet Cleaning business. If elected, he said he would move to have all inmates pay for their incarceration, stop tax increases and better manage natural resources.
White would privatize the lottery, reduce benefits that legislators receive and work to cut in half the salaries that school board members and county commissioners earn.