Linda Chapin's legacy of hard battles & great luck

Should Democrat Linda Chapin win the 8th District congressional seat left open by Republican Bill McCollum's run for the U.S. Senate `see Bill McCollum's history of quashing the little guy`, she should take a moment to thank the two things that got her there: opportunity, and her own ego.

Six years ago, Chapin -- then winding down four years as Orange County's first chairman -- decided to quit politics. Her time in the job was hell, with various factions struggling to establish themselves under the same 1988 charter that created the chairman's job. Chapin found herself at war with the sheriff's office, the comptroller, developers, environmentalists, fellow county commissioners -- even some within her own political party.

"I will never tell you that first term was anything but very difficult," she says. "Everybody has an ax to grind." Critics blasted Chapin as rude, power-hungry and self-serving, which didn't sit well with someone who conceded that she was thin-skinned.

"I was very sincere about getting out," she says, "and if someone had stepped in that I respected and was willing to run ..." That didn't happen. Chapin's choice -- state Sen. Toni Jennings -- opted to stay in Tallahassee, creating a contest between former county commissioner Tom Dorman and then-commissioner Fran Pignone, a Chapin ally turned antagonist -- and that, to Chapin, wasn't much of a choice at all.

So, buoyed by business interests and a belief that only she could complete the tasks at hand, Chapin re-entered the race. A bitter fight with Pignone ensued, but Chapin won in a runoff, 61 percent to 39 percent, and charged into a second term. And as the economy picked up, the bumps smoothed out. "All of the things I had worked for," she says, "came to fruition."

Not for the first time in Chapin's political career, opportunity followed. In late 1998, barely a month after her chairmanship ended, Orange County Clerk of Courts Fran Carlton resigned; Gov. Buddy MacKay, acting on the wishes of the deceased Lawton Chiles, appointed Chapin to ride out the term. It was less than satisfying. "There I was in the clerk's office, recognizing that I didn't want to stay in that job, that the challenges were more administrative than they were policy directions," she says, "... and then came impeachment."

The leading role played in the dump-Clinton movement by the conservative local congressman encouraged McCollum backers and galvanized McCollum haters. When McCollum decided that his elevated profile justified a run to replace Republican Connie Mack in the U.S. Senate, Democrats saw Chapin as their chance to win the congressional seat that McCollum held virtually unchallenged for 20 years.

It was a chance Chapin couldn't refuse. "I'm not exactly a fatalist," she says. "But I do have a tendency to think that opportunities come along, and you really ought to at least consider the matter."

She did more than consider it. She swiftly raised a ton of money, at one point outpacing all three of the Republican competitors combined. Her campaign account posted more than $1 million -- and that's not counting the hundreds of thousands of dollars of soft money various groups are investing in the high-profile race.

Indeed, it's one of this year's most closely watched contests, as Democrats try not only to take over a Republican stronghold but to reclaim Congress as well. Polls show it's a statistical dead heat. Adding even more uncertainty, the Republicans are rebounding from a divisive primary with an unexpected result.

State legislator Bill Sublette was the choice of party leaders, with broad name recognition and comfortably moderate positions. But the conservative voters who turned out in the primary went instead for attorney Ric Keller, a virtual political unknown who positioned himself as pro-life, pro-gun, pro-tort reform, anti-taxes and oh-so-tough on crime -- the ideological clone of McCollum.

Backed by the Washington, D.C.-based, ultra-conservative Club for Growth to the tune of more than $100,000, Keller pushed himself front and center by saturating the airwaves touting his conservatism. Now he faces the task of proving he's not the extremist he made himself out to be.

His two main issues, education and transportation, seem mainstream enough. He wants to allow schools to raise money via interest-free bonds for better facilities, and continually touts the fact that he mentors underprivileged kids. His transportation fix is a bit more controversial: He wants to complete the Western Beltway, which would connect existing toll roads through Seminole County with I-4. Environmentalists hate the idea, saying development will harm the Wekiva River basin. Keller says it can be done without damage. It is, after all, cheaper than light rail.

Following the Democratic playbook, Chapin has emphasized the more visceral issue of guns. Her first wave of ads attacked Keller's pro-gun stance, pointing out that he's arm-in-arm with the National Rifle Association. Meanwhile, Keller -- or more specifically, pro-Keller interest groups -- targets Chapin's spending record as county chairman, claiming the county misspent money on projects that were driven by Chapin's liberal ideals.

On a warm Friday night in late September, Chapin makes the rounds through a beautiful brick home in a secluded section of south Orlando, greeting each of the 125 well-wishers with her patented grin and firm handshake, making a point to tell each and every one how grateful she is for their attendance.

If all fundraisers were like this, she asides, politicking would be a great deal more fun: Red and white wines are flowing freely, complementing the stacked buffet and wonderful jazz band playing in the background. The house, owned by Brazilian immigrant and longtime Chapin supporter Elisabeth Tabakov, smacks of elegance and wealth. Yet the door cost was only $50, relatively minor in the world of $1,000-a-plate dinners.

Chapin is earnest and passionate, able to fixate the audience without so much as a stump speech. "I came up as kind of a good-government idealist," she says in an interview. It's clear she still sees herself as wearing a white hat.

"I saw a world full of things that needed to be fixed," she says. "At the age of 20, I thought my job was to save the world."

She attended Michigan State University, where she majored in political science and journalism. At the time, civil-rights battles waged in the South. "Civil rights was such an easy cause to be in," she says, "because the issues were so clear-cut. Southern governors were standing in the schoolhouse door waving ax handles and saying, 'Never, never, never,' and Florida flourished because of the kind of leadership that men like `former governors` LeRoy Collins and Reuben Askew provided. People who were principled, who didn't fight integration, who led this state in the right direction -- and set an example of principled leadership that I've always remembered."

Motherhood delayed her entrance into politics, but the opportunities found her.

As a housewarming present, a friend of her mother's gave Chapin a membership in the League of Women Voters. Eventually, she became its president -- and the president of the Junior League of Orlando as well. When her children entered school, Chapin's ties helped land her a management job in a downtown bank, where she worked for about 10 years.

In 1985, the Greater Orlando Chamber of Commerce tapped her to head its "Project 2000," a yearlong effort to set economic goals for the area. Project 2000, Chapin says, was "absolutely representative of the way I think these things ought to be done." It enlisted roughly 500 volunteers from different backgrounds to bring perspectives on development, the arts and transportation issues, among others.

Then, as the year ended and Chapin resumed her bank job, her district's incumbent county commissioner decided to bow out. With her Project 2000 experience, Chapin pursued his seat, and won.

Orange County government, Chapin says, was weak and ineffective, reminiscent more of old rural governments than that of a modern, growing metropolis. There was no strong, central leader, and no single-member commission districts. The government, Chapin thought, simply lacked accountability.

In 1988, she worked with a group determined to change that. The result: County residents approved an updated county charter, which created the new chairman's position, investing a single individual elected countywide with policy-setting powers and authority akin to a county mayor. Chapin was the first to announce her candidacy for the gig. Why? "It was available," she says.

She raised more money than any other candidate in the county's history and won a close race against Republican Tom Drage, 53 percent to 47 percent. Then the problems began.

"I wondered if being an idealist inside the system," she says, "would I be able to change the system or would the system change me? I think I've learned a lot about how to work from the inside instead of the outside, but in the end, I think I'm every bit the Pollyanna that I was when I was 20."

Unlike Keller, who has no prior political experience, Chapin's county commission record gives Republicans plenty of ammunition with which to attack. But the focus has been surprisingly narrow, emphasizing arcane items such as an $18,500 frog sculpture -- purchased with funds from a public art program -- and some expensive palm trees bought under Chapin's watch.

These, according to Keller spokesman Jason Miller, show "Linda Chapin's liberal record of raising taxes for wasteful spending projects. Her record speaks on its own."

Says Chapin: "`Citizens` wanted new parks, they wanted environmental lands set aside -- green space -- they wanted more law enforcement. There's no way we could have done those things without a new revenue source."

So she pushed a public-service tax, which the county used to build 15 new parks and put 500 additional deputies on the street. In fact, other than to say she maintained Orange County's taxes as the lowest of any urban area in Florida, Chapin doesn't back down from her taxing record. She stumped for a penny sales tax; she wanted tax dollars to finance light rail; she built community centers in blighted areas; she joined with Mayor Glenda Hood in the failed effort to land a major-league baseball franchise; she devoted hundreds of thousands of dollars to the arts, and she aggressively supported building a huge -- and eventually overbudget -- courthouse. Those efforts, she says, simply reflected her belief that government should be part of the solution.

During her administration, however, Chapin was no enemy to the Chamber of Commerce, nor to Disney, nor to business interests in general. Were she the liberal the Republicans seek to portray her as, she wouldn't stand much of a chance.

"Chapin," says one local political observer, "is the Republicans' favorite Democrat." As chairman, "Chapin wasn't simply pro-business, `she` deferred to the big players in the area. She seemed to switch allegiances. She went from being a grass-roots Democrat to being an insider who was aligned with downtown law firms and banks."

But what some see as "inside" politics, Chapin sees as consensus-building. "Everybody talks about `having` citizens in government," she says, "and in one little corner of the world, I actually did it."

She's referring to "Citizens First," an effort to involve sometimes disenfranchised people in the political process. It included the Targeted Community Initiative (TCI), an attempt to redevelop some of the county's blighted areas, such as Bithlo, Taft and South Apopka. While some residents -- especially in Bithlo -- belittled it as a government intrusion, in 1997 the TCI program won a public service award from the White House.

Chapin also takes credit for establishing Orange TV, a cable station that broadcasts county meetings. "People actually watched it," she says. "And you know what? I don't even think that it was because we sat up there and did such a great job. I think they watched it and they saw how complex the issues were and how hard we were trying."

Fourteen years in county government certainly taught Chapin media savvy. When it suits her, she's very open and forthcoming, tempering her optimism with a sense of bitter reality. On the other hand, criticism is met with her how-dare-you-ask-that look even while she's answering the question.

Her aggressive defense is legendary.

In 1993, Sentinel columnist Bob Morris decried her vote for the controversial Avalon West development, saying the developer's campaign contribution had, essentially, bought her. "If you want to see what you can get out of a newspaper when they really get something wrong," she says, "go see Bob Morris' retraction."

That retraction, headlined "I got facts wrong on Chapin's Avalon vote," is 669 words of complete contrition. And it recently happened again. In a story on the interchange at Osceola Parkway and I-4 -- partly funded by Orange County on behalf of Disney -- the Sentinel alleged that Chapin, who was chairman at the time, hid the location of the interchange (it's in Osceola County) from her fellow commissioners. Chapin complained, and three days later the correction appeared; "further reporting" found that commissioners were provided information telling them were the project would be.

"I'm famous for that, I guess," Chapin says, without apology. But the episodes highlight a trait that some observers fear.

As county Democratic Executive Committee chairman Doug Head told a reporter two years ago: "Her difficulty as a politician is that she is so intensely committed that she doesn't have thick enough skin. It's that `she thinks` people who disagree with her aren't just wrong, they're evil."

"She's very well-meaning," says ex-opponent Pignone, who served with Chapin on the commission, "`but` it is hard for her to see politics as politics. It's a loyalty kind of thing. `Chapin thinks` people who are with her shouldn't criticize her. That's the troubling aspect."

More troubling is what some see as a vindictive side. When, in 1991, county comptroller Martha Haynie released an audit critical of the county's bidding procedure, "There was a very strong, very negative reaction from the chairman and her immediate staff," Haynie says. "They took it personally. I was berated for that." All this, even though the audit analyzed events that had occurred before Chapin was chairman. "At one point," Haynie says, "she had an interim county administrator deny me access to records. There was a lot of tension."

"Her job," Chapin says, "was to be the watchdog of the county commission, and again, in the transition period of going to a new government, our relationship with her auditors was prickly."

Haynie, who has held the comptroller job since 1988, was challenged in 1996 by John Barry, a fellow Republican who some think Chapin propped up. (He dropped out when his money dwindled.) "In my opinion," Haynie says, "there was a huge amount of pressure on being the first county chairman. She was surrounded by people who saw bogeymen everywhere. That's what she heard, and I think that's what she believed."

In the days leading up to the Republican primary runoff, Keller found an unusual ally: the state Democratic Party, which ran ads attacking Sublette's growth-management record. The Democratic Party thought, as did the Republican establishment, that Sublette's moderate record would give him an edge over Chapin. They saw Keller as too much of an ideologue to be electable. No one, quite frankly, gave him a chance.

"Keller is extremely politically ambitious," says University of Central Florida political science professor Aubrey Jewett. "I wouldn't count him out."

In fact, the 8th District, as Keller's office happily points out, boasts a very conservative voting record. The district went for Bob Dole in 1996 and George Bush in 1992. George W. Bush, analysts say, will carry this district easily.

Chapin has name recognition on her side, and the perception that Keller is out there on the fringe. And she tows the Gore line on issues such as abortion (she's pro-choice) as well as shoring up Social Security and Medicare.

But it's her experience that she's counting on. "`It's` not about how long you've been in office," she says, "but how well you know the community and the people who live here. I know every corner of this community. I know this district."

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