THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, August 14, 2012 -
Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida
A crowded race in what is essentially a new House district in north Florida is in some ways serving as an outlet for the area's frustration over its diminishing influence and the GOP's continuing interest in privatizing prisons.
All seven candidates running for House District 7 -- which spans nine counties from Calhoun in the Panhandle to Lafayette in the Big Bend and also takes in a piece of Leon -- are opposed to handing prisons over to for-profit companies. They also knock changes that would ask existing state employees to contribute to their own retirements -- though most keep the door open on changes for future employees.
While those views are common among legislative Democrats, they would be maverick positions if one of the four Republicans wins the seat -- which covers at least a share of what used to be six different House seats.
It is in some ways a function of the district, which has the third-lowest percentage of its population working for private businesses among the state's 120 House seats, according to a survey by the U.S. Census Bureau.
While Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain would have easily won the district with almost 62.1 percent of the vote in the 2008 presidential election, Gov. Rick Scott squeaked out a 3.5-percentage point win in 2010 after he spent the campaign pledging to slash government, overhaul pensions and privatize prisons.
And so while the economy and how to fix it are also major issues in House District 7, promises to keep prisons open and in the hands of state government have been routine during this campaign cycle.
"Public safety is the primary responsibility of government," said Mike Williams, 53, a financial adviser from Madison who's running as a Republican. "We don't need to be leasing that out, if you will, to administer that for us."
Some of the concerns, particularly when it comes to proposals to shutter some of the facilities, are economic.
Halsey Beshears, president of the Florida Nursery, Growers & Landscape Association and a businessman, said that any reductions in prison workers should come in other parts of the state, where additional prisons might be nearby and other work opportunities exist -- unlike in District 7.
"Those people have less opportunity to go find a job," said Beshears, 40, of Monticello. He is also a GOP candidate. The prison in Jefferson County, where Beshears lives, narrowly escaped closure during last year's legislative session.
Other concerns stem from a deal that the candidates say their constituents made when the prisons were built in the northern part of the state: local residents would get jobs in their area in exchange for the dangers of having prisons nearby.
"It rankles me that some people would want to close those facilities now," said Republican Don Curtis, 57, a forester from Perry.
The issue has taken center stage in a clash between two of the candidates on the Democratic side. Thomas Dickens, an attorney from Leon County, has slammed A.J. Smith for gaining the support of Putting Florida First, an electioneering communications organization that has accepted contributions from privatization giant The GEO Group.
"You bet, I do take issue with that," Dickens, 37, said when asked about a mailer pointing out the links.
Smith, 53, a consultant and former law enforcement officer from Apalachicola, bristles at the allegation. He said he is certain none of the contributions from GEO to the ECO have been used to support him.
"GEO has not given me money, and I would not take money from GEO," he said.
Smith has joined the other candidates in pledging to fight privatization and boasts of having visited all nine prisons in the area.
Pensions are also an issue.
Robert Hill, who served for the last 12 years as Liberty County clerk of court -- a position that required him to double as county administrator -- said he is opposed to any changes that would affect current state workers.
"We had a contract with those employees, and there's an attempt to change that contract," said the 64-year-old Bristol resident.
But there is also a sense, voiced most prominently by former Rep. Jamey Westbrook, that despite its proximity to the state Capitol, District 7 is simply being forgotten. Westbrook, a Republican now, who was a Democrat during his first stint in the House, has seized on that issue with a vow to "set them straight" if elected.
"The only person that's a lobbyist for the small counties is the legislator that's elected there," said Westbrook, 63, from Port St. Joe.
"I'm not going to let them run over the constituents of House District 7," Westbrook said.
Beshears raised the most money in the district, according to state records, with $261,451; Curtis was next with almost $156,755; Westbrook raised $152,450; and Williams reported just $34,739 in contributions. All have funded their own campaigns to some extent. Westbrook has chipped in almost all of his total -- $150,000. Meanwhile, Curtis has spent $100,000 on the race while Beshears has poured more than $86,000 into his effort. Williams had contributed less than $225 of his own money.
Among the Democrats, Hill is the leader with $93,675, of which he contributed $50,000; followed by Smith with $85,490, including $500 of his own money, and Dickens with $80,583 -- $50,000 of which came from the candidate.