A (guaranteed) race to the finish

At last the campaign for Orange County chairman has an underdog. And despite his posturing, it's not Mel Martinez

Fran Pignone greets reporters in a pearl plastic back brace, a stark accessory in her cool, dimly lit living room. With a recently fused vertebrae and doctors' admonitions to stay in bed, Pignone says her main concern is "how to run a campaign if you don't go to the forums."

And a campaign it will be.

The race for Orange County Chairman hit a hairpin turn last week as Pignone, a liberal Democrat and former county commissioner, entered the fray.

Pignone's last minute decision, urged by Democrats appalled by the prospect of John Ostalkiewicz waltzing into the chairmanship on a "slow growth" platform, increases the likelihood of a November election. Before Pignone's surprise announcement, Republicans Ostalkiewicz and Mel Martinez dominated a contest that appeared to be headed for a September wrap.

But now that a five-week election season has been stretched to nine, the question remains: What is this race about? Where is the county headed?

Martinez says it's about putting more deputies on the beat and improving the schools. He says it's about his decision to "give back to the community that has done so much for me and my family."

The former Orlando Utilities Commission chairman and 1994 gubernatorial running mate of Ken Connor has never held elective office. But Martinez has raised more than $500,000 in his chairman effort, much of it from the developers and engineers who run Central Florida and most of the state. From the start his strategy was to overwhelm the field with a show of superior fire-power. Martinez's fund raising account opened in January of 1997, and periodic announcements of just how fat it was were designed to scare opponents away. Martinez took no positions and posited no issues. His record provided one exception.

County Commissioner Bob Freeman jumped into the race on Martinez's right, claiming Martinez did not oppose with sufficient vigor the proposed seventh-penny increase to the county sales tax, which voters rejected last fall despite a slick marketing campaign by much of the same downtown crowd that anointed Martinez as Linda Chapin's heir apparent.

Martinez said he opposed the tax increase, but he would not lend his face and his weight to the opponents' cause.

Then came Ostalkiewicz.

In May Ostalkiewicz wrote himself a check for $500,000 and jumped in the race, claiming Martinez is a captive of developers. With that, Ostalkiewicz-backer Freeman jumped out of the race. The high price Ostalkiewicz paid as his entrance fee also discouraged another short-lived contender, Democratic County Commissioner Mary Johnson, who bowed out after declaring that the race had become an "auction."

A staunch opponent of the sales tax increase, and of light rail, and of high-speed rail, and of government in general, Ostalkiewicz is a diamond importer who won a state senate seat in 1994 on a crusade to dismantle the state department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, a mission on which he made some progress. Other than that, he has concentrated on repealing the state's "intangibles" tax, which applies mostly to rich people like himself (he reported a net worth of $5.7 million on state disclosure forms). As a legislator he's gotten only about a quarter of his bills passed. But as a source for predictable quotes denigrating "bureaucrats" and "government waste," Ostalkiewicz has had great success.

"I again call on the chairman to debate her $2.2 billion dollar developer give-away," he said last summer, challenging Chapin on the penny sales tax. Chapin wouldn't do it.

As an advocate of slow growth and a foe of developers, Ostalkiewicz's record is less clear. His senate campaigns took donations from some of the usual suspects, including architects, real estate managers, home builders and building materials suppliers.

The irony of Ostalkiewicz's anti-developer shtick was not lost on progressives. "He's representing a perspective on growth that's not found among other candidates because it's so hard to raise money on a slow-growth platform," says Rollins College political science professor Rick Foglesong. "So that's the irony. If you just told me his perspective on growth, I'd jump to the conclusion that he's a liberal Democrat and a member of the Sierra Club."

Pignone actually has the support of Sierra Club members and is willing to declare the obvious: "Growth doesn't pay for itself."

This is the secret that every planner knows, but that somehow is placed at the bottom of the list of things to talk about when a new subdivision or project is proposed. Pignone, who inherited land from her parents, is not a no-growth advocate. But she's a planned growth advocate who has voted against most of the big projects that threaten wildlife habitat and stand to create flooding and sewerage problems. "I've always voted no for all expansions of the urban service boundary," Pignone says, "except at the airport," which bought a large tract several years ago and which Pignone saw as a special case.

Pignone quit her commission seat to run against Chapin in 1994, embarking on a savage campaign of invective. Pignone called Chapin's government "corrupt," and drew a libel suit from an investment banker mentioned in one of her campaign flyers. The suit cost her $65,000 and the campaign cost more than $200,000 -- and she was swept aside 61-to-39 percent. This time around, Pignone wants to talk issues. Still, the former HRS worker jabs at Ostalkiewicz.

"Now, I believe the agencies are like a family. They wax and wane, they operate sometimes with great efficiency and other times they do not," Pignone says. "When I was 20 I used to think you could create the perfect agency … now I'm more of a reformer than a radical restructurer."

She'll have to become a fund-raiser if she hopes to get her message out of her own living room. But even with minimal stumping, Pignone will be a factor, drawing some of the anti-development voters away from Ostalkiewicz.

Patty Sharp, a former teachers' union leader and Orange County Democratic Party chairman, is a Pignone advisor. Sharp says Pignone and Ostalkiewicz are "kind of mirror images" -- both plain-spoken outsiders operating within the system. And she thinks the establishment that anointed Martinez -- a certain victor until two months ago, and who last week suddenly proclaimed himself the underdog -- is weakening as the demographics here shift.

"There was a time when whoever the establishment chose, that person won," Sharp says. "I don't think it's like that so much anymore."


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