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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Republicans, Women, and Facts

Republicans recently had an election down in Congressional District 19, the House seat that centers in affluent Naples – a special election that was necessary to replace the young man they chose at the very last election. This may seem a little remote, but I think it makes a good topic for “In Context” because it is important to put elections in the context of their voters. Elections are how we make decisions in a democracy. We also have an obligation to look at what voters in neighboring districts are doing because Florida’s congressional delegation makes decisions for all of us, and indeed for the entire world.

So, some context on this US House district in southwest Florida. It had a different number until the 2010 census, but it began a trend of electing Young Men With Good Hair in 2004, when voters chose Connie Mack the Umpteenth. You may remember that he then left his wife and children to marry Sonny Bono’s widow while both were in Congress. Mary Bono Mack represented a similarly wealthy district in California, the retirement, golfing vacation, and spa rehab area of Palm Springs.

Born Mary Whittaker, she had a second husband after Bono died in a 1998 skiing accident, but she never took Glenn Baxley’s name. Instead she used “Bono,” both during the marriage and after the divorce. For you younger folks, this is not the one-name Bono of U2, the Irish singer and good-guy philanthropist, but instead your parents’ version -- Sonny Bono of Sonny and Cher, a beautiful and talented woman who also used just one name. (And I trust everyone knows that “bono” means “good” in Latin.)

Anyway, in the 2012 Democratic landslide that gave President Obama his second term, voters in California kicked Mary Bono Mack out of Congress. Connie (whose formal name is Cornelius Harvey McGillicuddy IV) voluntarily left his House seat to take a flyer for the Senate, running against squeaky-clean Democrat Bill Nelson. Florida voters rejected the wannabe in favor of the tried and true, and Connie lost. With both Macks out of office, these good representatives of the party of family values divorced in 2013. She became simply Mary Bono again and – surprise, surprise – is a consultant in Washington, specializing in prevention of drug addiction.

Meanwhile the supposedly astute, conservative retirees and other affluent newcomers who dominate southwest Florida opted to replace Connie Mack with another cute young guy whose chief credential was the R behind his name. But not very far into his very first term, Washington police arrested Congressman Trey Radel for buying cocaine. He initially tried to hang on to his job, but national party leaders – concerned that they might lose this safe seat if clueless Republican primary voters nominated Trey again in 2014 -- forced him to resign.

And so there was a special election this month, and these moved-here-yesterday voters have done it again. At the beginning of the recent campaign, I really thought they would elect state Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto. Instead, for the third time in a row, they went for the cool guy. A basketball player turned businessman, with a nicely alliterative name, Curt Clawson. His Purdue coach came down to cheer him on, and he won with 38% of the vote.

Lizbeth Benacquisto, who has years of service in the Florida legislature, came in a distant second with 27%. Another experienced former legislator, Paige Kreegel, won 25%. He did not exactly cover himself with glory during his time in Tallahassee, but he is a physician; he also earned an MBA before starting a medical company and once was an associate professor at USF Tampa. The rest of the vote went to Michael Dreikorn – and despite the fact that he won a mere 10%, he immediately announced that he would run again. Who knows? With citizens this willing to vote for the inexperienced, he might win next time.

* * *

They should have gone for Benacquisto, who instead went back to Tallahassee and the legislative session the next day. Although her platform is not nearly feminist enough for me, she has been a dutiful, honest lawmaker and has risen to Senate Majority Leader. Like Alex Sink in the recent Pinellas case, though, she probably suffered from a change in residency. Benaquisto originally was a city council member in Wellington and was first elected to the legislature from there.

Yes, that town is on the other coast – but under the truly outrageous gerrymandering while Jeb Bush was governor, this state Senate district literally ran from coast to coast, from Lee County to Palm Beach County. She narrowly won, defeating better-known people in both parties, and she won again after moving west when the Senate district was redefined in 2012.

The new congressional district runs down the West Coast from Fort Myers to Marco Island. It takes in environmentally sensitive places such as Sanibel and Boca Grande, and although most of this district was new to her, Benacquisto’s governmental experience in Palm Beach County matched the needs of her constituents very well. So why did she lose?

Several factors, I think. Her Hispanic name doubtless hurt her in this area, which has many Anglo retirees from the Midwest who never have had a Hispanic friend – not even one born in New York, as she was. Second, partisan insiders spread the word that in 2011, Senator Benacquisto married a man who had campaigned for Obama, and she once may have committed the crime of registering Democratic herself. Third, she is a woman. More about that later.

In another “in context” point, though, if we still had primary run-offs, the combined 27% and 25% of the two experienced legislators would have been enough to force a second race. With many clueless Yankees gone back home after Easter, the tally might have been different. I think the same may be true for Alex and Pinellas beach voters: Had the election been a month later, sans winter residents, the results could have changed. Remember that this Pinellas district voted Democratic in elections held at the regular time of early November.

There will be a general election for the Naples-based district, of course, but Democrats are so rare in this part of Florida that nominee April Freeman is given no chance, either by pundits or by the professionals in her own party. Her website is daring, however, and it raises issues that should be raised if we want to do a better job of vetting the people we send to represent us. Commenting on the Republican primary, she said: “Southwest Florida will have a clear choice on June 24. Curt Clawson is a Tea Party candidate who took government bailout money and laid off 1,300 people – just more of the same Washington hypocrisy.”

The Miami Herald reinforced her point. A March 12th article about Clawson’s tenure as a top executive for Hayes Lemmerz, a metal manufacturer based in Indiana, said that the company “shuttered seven plants in the US, and taxpayers covered hundreds of millions of dollars in pension and health-care costs shortly before selling to a Brazilian company in 2011… Clawson’s…salary ranged from a low of $1.3 million to a peak of $12 million.” The new congressman from Naples appears to be a lesser version of Rick Scott, another Naples denizen. And voters there are slow to learn.

I don’t want to pile it on, but I shall because it is important that word get out, that voters understand whom they are electing. Just last week, the Fort Myers News Press – certainly no liberal paper – featured the photo of another good-looking young man from the area, Republican Dane Eagle of Cape Coral, who had been arrested for driving drunk in Tallahassee. They rightfully excoriated him for denying that he had been drinking while refusing to take a sobriety test -- a much less invasive test than Republicans would impose on mothers who need financial help with their children. Until the courts refused to allow it, Republicans also dittoed Governor Scott in trying to impose random drug tests on state employees just because they were state employees.

Dane Eagle further showed a bully’s sense of entitlement when he also tried to prevent Leon County’s sheriff’s office from taking his photo and tried to keep the paper from publishing it. A week has passed, and I can’t find any more news on this. Certainly Governor Scott and other Republican leaders don’t want to force a resignation during the last week of the legislative session, but where are the newspapers outside of Fort Myers? Such things matter to all of us, especially when the culprit deals in denial and hypocrisy.

The most important damage that they do, though, is to is convince the public that everyone in their milieu does the same. That isn’t true of the Amanda Murphys or the Carl Zimmermans or the Dwight Dudleys or many other legislators of nearby districts, and we shouldn’t let the bad apples contaminate the reputations of the good. We must pay more attention -- and urge our neighbors in the chic districts to stop electing frat boys.

* * *

So I said I would say more about women. Given that Lizabeth Benacquisto has a solid record of public service and was the only woman in a four-person race, I was ready to revise my histories of women in Congress to say that Florida had elected a second Republican. It didn’t, and I was saved the trouble.

Our current delegation has just one, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a native of Cuba who won a special election in 1989 and has been in Congress ever since. Despite supposed Republican belief in term limits, no one opposes her in the Miami district that is dominated by right-wing exiles. Democrats, in contrast, have Corrine Brown of Jacksonville, Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Broward, Kathy Castor of Tampa, Frederica Wilson of Miami, and Lois Frankel of Palm Beach.

Do the math: That’s five to one. The same is true nationally: We have 80 women in the current 435-member House, and just 19 of them are Republicans. That’s down from 24 Republican women in the previous Congress. Florida Republicans follow this downward trend. Our delegation used to have more Republican women, including Sarasota’s Katherine Harris and Orlando’s Sandy Adams, but they lost their re-nominations in Republican primaries. I’m not saying that I have any admiration for either one, but again, the facts are the facts and they matter. Don’t let anyone tell you there is no difference between the parties: there is, and it’s measurable.

I’m not too surprised that Republicans are slower to elect women because, by definition, the nature of conservatism makes conservatives slower on everything. They used to elect sedate older men, though, and the real puzzle to me is the current victories of unqualified young men. My guess is that political life has become so hard that older men with money don’t want to run for office. Instead, they find a frat boy who can be manipulated – and indeed, it might be helpful to the string-pullers if the would-be puppet is akin to Trey Radel in having some really bad habits. If I were a Republican woman thinking about being seduced by the party’s new GROW program (Growing Republican Opportunities for Women), my first step would be to talk with Lizbeth Benacquisto.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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