1. Opinion

Ruth: Bruised but unbowed after a bitter campaign

Published Nov. 21, 2014

This was probably the tipoff that Judithanne McLauchlan was not going to be your typical candidate. After all, what glad-handing office seeker says stuff like: "Well, I think my pedagogy has been experiential learning."

In today's nasty climate of campaign advertising, popping off about being a pedagogue would have likely led McLauchlan's opponents to accuse her of being a child molester, or perhaps an admitted thespian, or even, dare it be said, someone who once engaged in matriculation.

As it turned out in her race as the Democrat running against incumbent Republican Jeff Brandes for Florida Senate District 22, which covers parts of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, McLauchlan found herself being tarred as a bankrupt, tax-loving liberal with likely commie sympathies who favored underage drinking. Oh, and she was also portrayed as a monster. Sappy days were here again.

McLauchlan, 46, is a University of South Florida St. Petersburg professor with a Ph.D. from Rutgers University. Her doctoral dissertation explored "Congressional Participation as Amicus Curiae Before the United States Supreme Court." She worked as a legal intern for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. In short, she would have been one of the most highly educated, experienced and thoughtful members of the Florida Senate. That alone probably made her grotesquely unfit to campaign for the seat.

At USF, McLauchlan is the founding director of the Center for Civic Engagement. Each term, the professor requires her students to find some form of civic or political activity to participate in. That is what led her to take on an incumbent state senator with deep pockets.

"It was unthinkable Brandes would be re-elected unopposed," McLauchlan said.

She thought she had a chance. District 22 should be a rare competitive district. She believed she was right on the issues of transportation, improving public education, expanding Medicaid and eliminating Duke Energy's nuclear cost recovery scam.

As a student of political science, McLauchlan was hardly naive about what to expect on the campaign trail. On an intellectual level, she expected to get beaten up. What she didn't anticipate was how bad the mugging would be.

It was a Monday morning and McLauchlan was at her Madeira Beach home when she first saw it. The Republican Party of Florida commercial on behalf of Brandes featured an unctuous school teacher giving her students a pop quiz that depicted the professor as belonging to a shadowy, unnamed group that favors a state income tax. The spot also suggested McLauchlan was fiscally irresponsible because she had once declared bankruptcy.

"I cried," McLauchlan recalled. "I took a walk on the beach."

The income tax smear was wrong. McLauchlan had never promoted a state income tax, which would be unconstitutional in Florida anyway. And the mystery group trying to pillage the good citizens of Florida? It was those fifth columnists over at the League of Women Voters.

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As for the bankruptcy, it was true — 16 years ago when McLauchlan had been overwhelmed by medical bills following surgery. But the debt had been completely satisfied.

"And I thought, this is what I get?" McLauchlan sighed.

Soon the phone calls started. Was the rumor true she was a communist, based on the fact that while a Fulbright Scholar she had taken students to the Republic of Moldova, which was once part of the Soviet Union?

Was it true she favored underage drinking, because while in Moldova she had taken students on a tour that included a visit to a winery, where no one drank?

McLauchlan rolled her eyes. "Where was this stuff coming from?"

Where do you think?

She faced accusations she was a dreaded liberal professor, which was really code for an elitist. "Brandes even stopped talking about if he ever went to college," McLauchlan sighed.

McLauchlan had come out of the ivory tower to live the life of a candidate. And she wasn't a bad one, either. Although she lost to Brandes by 16 points, she raised nearly $400,000 and won 77,774 votes — not bad for a first-time candidate.

On election night, McLauchlan dutifully placed a concession call to Brandes. "He told me how much he liked me and wanted to get to know me better," she laughed. "You just spent a million dollars lying about me and now you want to get to know me better?"

Brandes just might get that chance. After all the brutal ads, the whispering campaigns, McLauchlan was asked if she would ever consider another run for office. Without missing a beat, Ms. Chips had a ready reply.



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