He who would be McCollum

Twenty years after Republican Bill McCollum walked into Congress on a pro-term-limits platform, he's finally getting out. He's not leaving politics, though -- he's seeking retiring Connie Mack's U.S. Senate seat.

Thus, for the first time in two decades, there's a competitive 8th District Republican primary, the winner of which will face a strong and well-funded Democrat, former Orange County Chairman Linda Chapin. In a district where Republicans have reigned essentially unchallenged for the last three decades, they now have reason to worry.

McCollum's conservative views and voting record set the standard for those who seek to replace him, pulling the three contenders ever farther to the right as the most extreme among them tries to out-McCollum McCollum. They are:

• Ric Keller, an attorney whose previous political experience came in 1996, when he helped author two Everglades-related amendments to the state constitution.

• Bill Sublette, another attorney who served eight years in the Florida Legislature and is best known for his crusade to regulate car-title loan lenders.

• Bob Hering, a business owner and Desert Storm vet who has gained most of his support door-to-door, securing his spot on the ballot via 4,400 signed petitions.

The supposed favorite, Sublette has secured the most endorsements, raised the most money and has solid name-recognition -- vital in a low-turnout primary. In response, his challengers' tactics have been to paint Sublette, who is moderate on some social issues, as the undeserving liberal.

Can Sublette convince the core constituency that he's not? Certainly a candidate's more moderate instincts will become lost in the swing right, as business and social conservative interests seize the spotlight.

Which means that, even without McCollum around any more, Central Florida might still experience the aftertaste.

Ric Keller doesn't look much like a politician. At a Tiger Bay Club debate in July, the short and chubby Keller seemed to lack a sort of fluency. He wasn't a statesman. He came off, more or less, as average. And nobody knew who the hell he was.

"The Tiger Bay Club," he opened, "is made up of the 'who's who' in Orlando politics. I'm more in the category of 'who's he?'"

Good question. Keller bears the most responsibility for the race's right-wing trajectory. Since day one, he has persistently declared that he is the conservative candidate -- the word appears ad nauseam in his campaign literature -- and thus, McCollum's rightful successor.

Ideologically speaking, he may be. Of the three, says University of Central Florida political-science professor Aubrey Jewett, Keller is closest to McCollum, being very conservative both economically and socially.

Primary voters like that, and in the Tiger Bay debate, Keller wasted little time going after them. At the end of his opening statement, he issued this idea for fixing Florida education: "I think it's time," he said, "we started treating students better than criminals." In other words, redirect funds from jailhouse "luxuries" to schools -- a theme reminiscent of a former congressional GOP leadership's divisive "Contract With America."

But the hard-line stance may prove tough to maintain for Keller, who co-authored three amendments to the state constitution (two passed) aimed at making sugar companies pay for pollution to the Everglades. Says Sublette: "Ric Keller's position on the Everglades -- he stands hand-in-hand with Bill Clinton and Buddy McKay." (Sublette, who notes that Keller was paid for his legal services, claims the legislation actually lessened Big Sugar's share of the clean-up costs.)

Many of Keller's financial backers can't even vote for him. That's because roughly one-third of his funds -- at least $100,000 of the $309,899 he reported at the end of the most recent filing period -- have been funneled through the Washington, D.C.-based Club for Growth, an organization of individuals who "don't feel the `congressional` Republicans have done enough" to advance a conservative agenda, says Keller spokesman Jason Miller. Included are donations of $1,000 from a homemaker in Morristown, N.J.; $500 from a retiree in New York City; $250 from a Tyler, Texas-based self-employed consultant, and so on -- in other words, people with absolutely no connection to Keller.

"Our sole mission," says Club for Growth president Stephen Moore, "is to get pro-growth Republicans elected to Congress -- Reaganite Republicans." The organization advocates vast tax cuts, huge reductions in government, open free trade and term limits. And it thinks Keller is a "potential superstar," making him one of only 15 candidates nationwide the organization is supporting this year.

Lew Oliver, the Orange County Republican Executive Committee chairman, calls the club a "dishonest organization. Their sole mission seems to be knocking off moderate Republicans."

Not that many moderates have embraced Keller. He's ardently pro-life, pro-vouchers, pro-voluntary school prayer and anti "special rights" for gays. "People like `Christian conservative talk-show host` James Dobson," Keller says, "are like heroes to me."

His support for term limits -- eight years -- would cut short his chance for seniority, he acknowledges, so persistence is key. He vows to push ahead in three areas: education, tort reform and transportation.

While he believes in vouchers, local control and voluntary school prayer, Keller wants to modernize classrooms -- and eliminate portable trailers. The "America's Better Classrooms Act," put forward by Connecticut congresswoman Nancy Johnson, would allow local districts to issue interest-free bonds to build revenue; investors, instead of getting interest, would get tax breaks. The idea is to raise funds without making taxpayers foot the bill.

He also backs measures that would make it easier for businesses to fend off lawsuits. His law firm -- Rumberger, Kirk and Caldwell, which "specializes in defending corporations in product liability cases `and` defending physicians in medical malpractice cases," according to his campaign website -- advised the business coalition that successfully pushed a tort-reform bill through the Florida Legislature last year. (Coincidentally, that law firm was also where McCollum worked.) Keller's goal -- and the goal of business in general -- is to take that bill national. He'd also cap punitive damages and make legal losers pay the winners' legal fees. Because businesses often are made to pay high legal fees win or lose, Keller thinks they're encouraged to settle even frivolous lawsuits. "That's an eighth of an inch away from blackmail," he declares.

Third on the Keller agenda is transportation, specifically building the Western Beltway to connect existing toll roads through Seminole County with I-4. That beltway was twice studied and rejected in the last decade, mainly because it would cross and bring development into the fragile Wekiva River basin. It's a project that Jennifer McMurtray, a spokesperson for the environmental activist group Defenders of Wildlife, describes as "a very bad idea that needs to go away permanently."

Keller stands arm-in-arm with presidential candidate George W. Bush on tax cuts, Social Security reform and increased military spending. On campaign finance, he wants full disclosure and would require that "all contributions be voluntary," meaning no more union donations (a frequent source of Democratic fund-raising) without the consent of the dues-payer. But mostly, he says he wants "candidate reform" over campaign-finance reform; with adherence to term limits, he says, Congress will revert to more citizen service, and politics in general, he feels, will become a cleaner business as a result.

Sublette's TV ads tout his "conservative values," but Sublette is critical of the party's concrete stance on abortion -- he's pro-choice when it comes to the first trimester. Stands such as that put him in an odd position: The primary race is tight only because of Keller's and Hering's success in portraying Sublette as too moderate for McCollum's constituency.

He's stuck defending himself. But he can only go so far right, he knows, without scaring off the moderates that he'd need to go up against Chapin. "I'm generally perceived as a moderate Republican," he says. "I vote conservative on most issues -- that surprises folks."

He's focused on two issues: transportation and drugs. On the former, his position is simple: Central Florida only gets back 45 cents from each dollar it sends to Washington for road-building. With local roads becoming increasingly clogged, he says, that sum needs to be upped.

On the latter, his position is equally simple: More should be spent on drug interdiction in Florida. He adds, however, that drug and alcohol treatment programs are severely underfunded, and he'd like that remedied as well. In both cases, his positions echo those of Republican Congress-man John Mica, of Winter Park, from whom Sublette takes most of his relevant statistics.

As a member of the Florida House of Representatives, he voted against partial-birth abortions and mandated health-insurance coverage of abortions, and for abortion waiting periods and parental consent. He also voted against giving out birth-control devices in schools, and says that sex education should be taught with a decidedly pro-abstinence bent.

To prove his conservative mettle, he touts his 89 percent approval rating with the Christian Coalition. But as the conversation progresses, he says the Coalition has become irrelevant. By "cherrypicking" issues for its voter guides, which are distributed to churches close to election day, Sublette thinks the Coalition has lost credibility. "They have diluted their numbers," he says.

Like his primary opponents, Sublette says current military cutbacks are atrocious. "`Spending needs to be` dramatically increased," he says. "`But` not for equipment and technology." Instead, he'd like to see a larger military of better-paid soldiers.

Moreover, as a seasoned campaigner, he knows that "money has a tremendous influence in politics. ... If you don't have money, you can't get the issue out." For true campaign-finance reform, he says, a constitutional amendment must be created to reverse a Supreme Court decision that says states cannot limit the amount of money spent during campaigns. In the meantime, he supports limiting soft money -- that is, money not given to a candidate but spent by someone else on the candidate's behalf.

As it is, he's collected plenty on his own, with $443,500 on hand at the close of the last reporting period. Sublette has the endorsements of at least 65 PACs, 59 of which are business-oriented. He's been endorsed by firefighters, police officers, Realtors, homebuilders, doctors and credit unions; the only major organization he says he hasn't locked up is the teachers' union, which usually goes Democratic anyway.

Hering, by contrast, had raised only a third of what Keller had by the end of the previous reporting period, and has generated no significant endorsements from party elites. But he did come out on top in the St. Cloud/Greater Osceola Chamber of Commerce's annual "Politics in the Barn" straw poll.

Naturally, straw polls held at the edge of the district aren't indicative of any end result. But it energized his fledgling paid campaign staff of one: consultant Doug Guetzloe.

At the Tiger Bay debate, Hering looked almost out of place: Tall and bulky, he sometimes seemed, well, ogre-like. He repeated the words "business" and "Ronald Reagan" like a broken record. In his campaign fliers, Hering alternates between looking uncouth and downright mean.

In person, he's exactly the opposite -- friendly and well spoken. "We are conservative," Hering says, "but we're not part of the downtown law firms that run Orlando." Indeed, a good deal of his campaign is dedicated to pointing out that he, unlike his opponents, is not a lawyer. He instead runs Con-Air Inc., a filter distribution company.

Hering's two central themes: He is a businessman, and he's a veteran. He hasn't accepted any PAC money. In fact, his list of campaign donors is a very short read: Only 10 people, as of the last filing period, have contributed $250 or more to Hering's campaign. (The comparable list for each of his opponents is in triple digits.) Still, he's raised more than $114,000 -- mostly through much smaller donations.

On his ideological scale, he plants himself between what he depicts as the too-far-left Sublette and the too-far-right Keller. "On certain positions," he adds, "I'm very conservative." Take abortion: He believes in the right to choose only when a mother's life is in danger.

In fact, if Hering's campaign had been perceived as viable, the Rev. Jerry Creel of the Conservative Ministers of Central Florida says Hering might have won the group's endorsement, which went to Keller, who touts it prominently.

But viability doesn't affect Hering's enthusiasm. "I would have run against Bill McCollum," he declares as something of a surprise. Given the praise that he, Sublette and Keller all sent McCollum's way during the Tiger Bay debate, it seemed Hering was running only because of the open seat. But no. Hering's hot-button issue is term limits, and McCollum had 20 years. "We have got to lead by example," Hering says. "Eight years is eight years."

He also wants campaign spending to be limited to a fixed amount, no more than two years' worth of the position's salary. If that system were in place, he asks, "Do we really care where `the money` comes from?"

Ideologically, that would be nice. But as Sublette says, without challenging a Supreme Court decision, such reform is unconstitutional, which makes it a legal matter -- and as Hering has reiterated throughout the campaign, he is not a lawyer.

But he is a businessman, and as such he wants businesses shielded from trial lawyers.

"The public has a right to be protected," he says about tort reform. "`But` we're being strangled by frivolous lawsuits. If the plaintiff loses, they should have to pay the fees." He supports capping punitive damages, but adds that in cases of negligence, the court has every right to punish the offending business. Furthermore, he wants lawyers -- and plaintiffs -- who file frivolous lawsuits sanctioned and fined, and he doesn't think that doing so will discourage legitimate suits from taking place.

"As a business owner," he says, "I have worked and built a business under the regulatory administration -- I see the problems," he says. Like the others, he tows the Bush line on tax cuts, Social Security reform and military spending.

But policy positions are not always part of the appeal where fringe candidates are concerned, and Hering is a beneficiary of that fact. On the morning that the candidate was being interviewed, a man entered his small and sparsely decorated campaign office and asked for a sign to display in his front yard. Hering, of course, said yes, and asked why the man was supporting him.

The man thought that having a businessman and veteran in office would be good for the country. What did he know of the other candidates or issues in the primary campaign?

"Almost nothing," he replied.

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