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  1. Education

Goliath candidate for state Senate takes first-time opponent seriously

Election Day is Tuesday Nov. 6, 2018.
Published Oct. 18, 2018

The contest for Florida Senate District 10 almost didn't happen.

Until the final hours of qualifying in June, incumbent Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, appeared on track to his fourth and final unchallenged election, no Democrats having stepped forward in the heavily Republican region he serves.

Then came Michael Cottrell, a Defense Department history teacher on medical leave for chemotherapy treatment. His wife, Dana, already had announced her bid for a congressional seat, and she convinced him to seek the legislative post.

"We did not like that people were running unopposed," Michael Cottrell explained. "All citizens should have the right to choose."

Since then, his campaign has consisted of a nearly blank Facebook page, less than $3,000 in spending money and a handful of short meet and greets as he endeavored to regain his health.

Still, Simpson — whose name recognition is by his own admission not huge after three uncontested races and a mostly behind-the-scenes political career — took the opposition seriously. He amassed a half-million-dollar campaign account, spurred in no small part by his scheduled ascendancy to the state Senate presidency in 2020. And he began running TV ads and sending mailers, while hitting the chicken-dinner circuit.

The first thing you see when leaving Cottrell's modest Spring Hill neighborhood is a giant blue and red "Simpson for Senate" sign, that Cottrell can't afford to compete with. The signs are popping up throughout Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties.

"I've been told, you either run scared, or you run unopposed," said Simpson, one of the Senate's wealthiest members. He owns a giant Trilby egg farm and an environmental cleanup firm, among other ventures.

"We are going to work as hard at doing this as we do in our other activities," he said. "I want to continue to serve."

His desire stems from his parents instilling the importance of community service. Simpson's family supported programs such as 4H and area sporting teams, and he said he saw how much positive energy it brought to everyone involved.

When he went out on his own, Simpson said, he chose the Kiwanis over other organizations because of its service component. He led the Pasco fair association to support the agriculture of the rural community, and chaired groups such as Habitat for Humanity and the Pasco-Hernando Community College trustees to help advance what he sees as important social causes.

"I desired to make our community a better place," Simpson said.

While participating in his activities, Simpson said, he saw a common theme: Government often stood in the way of "potentially great work." Running for state office gave him a "bigger megaphone to do great work for our community and state."

He's taken strong stances on springs restoration and water cleanup projects, saying Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature set up long-term, funded initiatives to protect Florida's resources. The effort might be taking some time and facing hurdles77, he said, but the state has a plan in place.

Simpson backs the state's school choice and accountability model, saying the only way to break the cycle of failure is through competition and excellence. The state has created one of the nation's best education systems while remaining financially efficient, he said, pointing to the national Quality Counts report to bolster his view.

He supports making it easier for Floridians to have concealed weapons, saying it makes the state safer. He wants to overhaul the state employee union and pension system, saying it faces a looming crisis over its unfunded liabilities.

And Simpson, who was adopted as a child, wants to revamp the state's maligned foster care and adoption process.

Continuing to give children back to their parents on that criterion alone "is a crime against humanity," Simpson said.

As a legislative leader who brokered key deals, such as the power struggle between the factions of Joe Negron and Jack Latvala, he anticipates a continued strong voice in pushing issues like this to the forefront — even if he does not file the legislation himself.

Cottrell questioned Simpson's altruism, suggesting there must be other motivations for a multimillionaire to spend huge amounts of money to win a position that pays less than $30,000 a year. He contended the incumbent wants to keep power contained in the hands of a few, which is not always in the best interest of the general public.

Having endured the health care system in the past year, Cottrell focused first on that subject.

He shared his own story, where his bills for treatment at a Japanese hospital were thousands of dollars less than those in Florida.

"If we're the richest, most powerful nation in the world, why can't we figure out a way to make this work?" Cottrell wondered aloud, blasting the Florida Legislature for its refusal to take money to expand Medicare services to needy families.

He challenged Simpson's stance on concealed carry weapons and the expansion of arming school employees. Guns should not be in schools, Cottrell said, and it should be harder to access a weapon in Florida, not easier.

"These are conversations that need to be had, but nobody wants to have that conversation because they're afraid of the political ramifications," Cottrell said, stressing he supports the Second Amendment and seeks "responsible" gun legislation.

Cottrell acknowledged Simpson's comments on cleaning the environment, but wondered why, if that's a serious concern, the Sunshine State hardly has a presence in solar energy. He pointed to Simpson's recent sale of property to Tampa Electric for a solar farm, in which Simpson made a $4.4 million profit, and suggested such interactions should not drive the effort.

Cottrell similarly disagreed with Simpson on education, arguing the amount spent on public schools is not enough. He does not support merit-based bonuses for teachers, saying the money should go into salaries.

And rather than expanding charter schools, which his own son attends, "I would just like to see the public schools have more autonomy and more freedom to do what they know is best."

In conversation, Cottrell frequently punctuates his key points with the observation, "It's not that difficult."

But what might prove tough is overcoming the significant odds against him.

Even some in his own party encouraged him not to run against Simpson, who had planned to donate his campaign account to charities if unopposed.

That spurred Cottrell to work harder. He expects his campaign to become more active in the final weeks.

And that, in turn, will fuel Simpson to work harder to get out the vote, too.

"We have to run our race," Simpson said.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com. Follow @jeffsolochek.

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