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  1. Florida Politics

Challenger to incumbent congressman says people aren't being represented

As Republican U.S. Rep. Rich Nugent seeks his third term in Congress, once again he has cruised into the November general election to face a Democratic challenger with considerably less money and who lacks the support of a party focused on more competitive races.

While Nugent boasts $284,000 in contributions, opponent David Koller of Ocala has $32,000 — a large portion of it from his own pocket. Koller admits that he has received no support from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and that his own initial informal polls showed him tied with "pressing the wrong button" on the telephone.

Nugent, a former Hernando sheriff who votes consistently with his party, is the strong favorite to retain his seat representing Florida's 11th District, comprised of Hernando, Citrus and Sumter counties and a portion of Marion — a district that tilts conservative.

Despite the odds that seem stacked against him, Koller is not deterred, running a grass roots campaign that focuses on being a representative of the people, a spirit of compromise and ending the gridlock in Washington, D.C.

"I believe that always, your country should come before party lines," he said. "When it came down to it, my opponent is Republican. I don't subscribe to the hard-lining that they go through now."

• • •

Nugent, 63, was first elected to the House in 2010 after quietly filing to run at the last minute at the request of Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, who dropped out of the race and retired. Two years later, he caught a couple of political breaks that essentially assured him a second term.

This year's election has been relatively controversy free, with no major hiccups or challenges to his candidacy.

Nugent has been a fairly reliable conservative vote during his first two terms in Congress. According to the nonprofit website opencongress.org, he has voted with his party 95 percent of the time. He has voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act in the past and also voted to bolster states' rights on various issues, including rules on water, wetlands and mountaintop-removal mining.

Nugent is opposed to raising the federal minimum wage. He has taken a hard-line stance on any immigration plan that doesn't first secure America's borders.

"I don't see how you fix anything until you hit that head on," he said.

In response to a Tampa Bay Times questionnaire, Nugent said he believes amnesty for any of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country will serve as a strong incentive for more people to come here illegally.

"That's why many of us feel so strongly that everything stops with our ability to control our border," he wrote. "If that piece isn't taken care of first, then there really is nothing else that is responsible for us to talk about."

In December 2013, Nugent voted against a bipartisan budget compromise that represented an end to what Nugent previously has called a "sad time" in America's history due to the deadlock.

In an interview, Nugent said he could not have supported the bill because it took money away from veterans to fund other parts of the government.

"How can I vote for something that I know clearly would hurt our veterans?" he said.

He said he wouldn't support any cuts of benefits to current veterans.

When asked why Congress can't seem to get anything done, Nugent laid the blame on the Democratic-controlled Senate, saying two-thirds of the legislation that has been signed into law since 2011 originated in the House.

He said the Senate and its leaders have been the sticking point.

• • •

Koller, 43, says he is running for Congress because he is sick of the gridlock and tired of not being represented.

Saying that he is disillusioned with big money and corporations dictating politics, he said he believes the American political system is in jeopardy and needs new leadership.

Exhibit A: the government shutdown of 2013.

"I was pretty angry," he said. To make matters worse, he said, he couldn't get in touch with his representative.

He said that motivated him to support whoever might be running against Nugent. When he discovered that no one had filed to run, he said he was shocked and decided to enter the race.

He has a simple philosophy for representing the district, one that he says he uses in his work with people with developmental disabilities.

"If you follow the people you're supposed to serve, you can't go wrong," he said.

Koller says that people who believe they can effect change for the better have an obligation to do so.

"My whole drive is that we need to put people first," he said.

A native of Port Jefferson, N.Y., Koller moved to Florida in 1996 to work as a supported living coach for Arc Marion Inc. Two years later, he founded his own company, now called Developmental Service Trainers.

Using state and federal tax dollars and overseen by the state Agency for Persons with Disabilities, the for-profit company employs about 30 staffers who support and teach life skills to about 60 developmentally and physically disabled clients in Marion County. Koller's wife, Victoria, is a co-owner and vice president.

Koller describes himself as a social progressive and fiscal conservative. He believes the tea party's obstructionists have taken over the Republican Party and that Nugent's voting record on the debt ceiling and budget have hurt underprivileged people in the district.

He says the people he has spoken to are mostly tired of stagnate politics. They're also concerned about keeping or getting good-paying jobs and issues such as the environment.

Among Koller's biggest concerns is his belief that the country is willing to send men and women off to war, but then won't properly support them when they arrive back home.

One of his main ideas is a veterans bill that would set up a program that would operate like a decompression boot camp. He imagines that soldiers returning from war would spend roughly three months reacclimating, receiving counseling and cross-training to help them obtain jobs later on down the road.

He said the large number of veterans who commit suicide is a testament to the need for this type of program.

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