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He's the GOP's Anti-Foley

A Florida state legislator has five weeks to beat what analysts see as a Democratic edge in the race for the House seat opened by the scandal.

October 04, 2006|Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writer

STUART, Fla. — Jury duty was the last thing Florida state Rep. Joe Negron needed Tuesday, his first full day as a candidate for Congress.

Five weeks before election day, Negron took over that role from Mark Foley, who resigned his seat in the House following revelations of sexually explicit Internet communications with underage congressional pages.

But at 8:45 a.m., Negron entered Martin County's Peter L. Cheney Courthouse as an alternate juror in a triple murder case while his media facilitator paced outside the courtroom, speaking into his cellphone.

"We're being held hostage right now," said Tom McNicholas. "The campaign is in limbo."

Inside, Negron's face was blank as he sat with 13 other jurors listening to mothers and daughters read victims' statements in the case of Eugene McWatters, who was found guilty last week of murder and sexual battery.

Jury duty, though, was just one challenge facing the legislator. He has to make himself known to voters, a task he found daunting earlier this year: After declaring himself a candidate for Florida attorney general, he decided he didn't have enough name recognition to defeat former U.S. Rep Bill McCollum in a statewide race.

At the same time, he has to explain that Foley's name, not his, will appear on the Nov. 7 ballot as the Republican candidate.

As Negron was on jury duty, his Democratic opponent, Tim Mahoney, a millionaire businessman and former Republican who became a Democrat last year, attempted to focus on issues such as port security.

At a news conference at the Port of Palm Beach in Riviera Beach, as container ships were unloaded behind him, Mahoney said, "The federal government has turned a blind eye on our ports and failed to live up to their promise to make America as secure as it can be."

But questions kept pulling Mahoney back to Foley.

"What goes on in Washington, D.C., has nothing to do with what this campaign is about," he said. "Six weeks from now, what is going on with Mark Foley won't mean anything."

Unlike Mahoney, Negron seemed eager to discuss Foley. After he finished his jury service shortly after noon, Negron -- a parent and former congressional intern -- said that he was offended by Foley's behavior.

"But Mark Foley should be responsible for his disgusting failures, not me," he said. "Democrats are acting like Mahoney should be coronated because Mark Foley did disgusting things. But Republicans are not going to go into the fetal position because of Mark Foley's disgusting behavior."

Most political analysts now favor Mahoney to win the race. In the last five days, Congressional Quarterly Politics changed its rating on Florida's 16th Congressional District contest from "Safe Republican" to "No Clear Favorite" to "Leans Democratic."

"This is Mahoney's race to lose," said Martin Sweet, an assistant professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University. He predicts that voter turnout in the race will be low, Mahoney will win and Negron will have a better chance of being elected in 2008. "My sense is that the Republicans will have to chalk this up as a lost seat."

But Negron dismissed many political analysts' view that he is fighting a rear-guard campaign.

"I'm raring to go," he said as he drank a diet soda at the Osceola Cafe in downtown Stuart. "I believe this district will remain a Republican seat. This district doesn't want to see their representative hanging out with John Kerry or popping up on C-SPAN ripping the president."

He was not worried, he said, about his lack of name recognition in this race. He has served as a state legislator in this district for six years, unlike the political novice Mahoney.

"Mahoney is not exactly Bob Graham," he said, referring to the former longtime Democratic U.S. senator. "No one has heard of him either."

Negron added that he liked the idea of a short campaign.

"I'm not a big fan of those long, drawn-out slugfests where congressmen spend millions of dollars fighting it out on TV ads. This will be a five-week sprint to the finish."

But across Florida's 16th District, voters continued to talk about Foley, with many saying they were not sure how they would vote.

In Republican Martin County, wedged between the two Democratic counties of St. Lucie and West Palm Beach, Democrats celebrated the prospect of winning the district.

"We're pumped up," said Dave Dew, chairman of the Martin County Democratic Party in Stuart. "Finally, we're going to get a guy in Congress, and that hasn't happened for 30 years. The phones are ringing off the wall here."

*

jenny.jarvie@latimes.com

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