If anyone was wondering if Franklin County Democrats were fired up for the upcoming election, they got their answer Saturday afternoon in Eastpoint.
About 50 of the party faithful gathered under sunny skies at Millender Park, to listen to a series of hard-charging appeals from three candidates as to why they offer a better alternative than their Republican opponents.
Mercedes Updyke, chair of the Democratic Executive Committee, introduced the three men who are campaigning, as well as three other county Democratic officeholders, Tax Collector Jimmy Harris and Property Appraiser Rhonda Skipper, neither of whom faced opponents, and retiring Property Appraiser Doris Pendleton.
Updyke said that Organizing for America registered two new voters at the picnic, with all leftover food donated to the Apalachicola Food Bank.
Harris used his time under the pavilion to stress his office’s open door policy, welcoming questions and concerns. He said the office’s most recent purchase was an AS400 computer, for $47,000, “which is the brains we use to collect taxes. Most counties won’t share theirs with the property appraiser, but we always shared an AS400. I know $47,000 sounds like a lot of money, and it is, but our last machine lasted eight years.”
First to speak was Liberty County Clerk of Courts Robert Hill, running for state representative in the newly drawn House District 7, which now encompasses all of Franklin County. Hill is facing Republican Halsey Beshears, a Tallahassee nurseryman.
Hill’s vote total in the Democratic primary was about the same as the total number of votes cast for all the Republicans, but the 64-year-old Hill urged supporters not to look past the Nov. 6 election.
“I’m very encouraged,” he said. “But I’m not so overconfident that I’m not going to ask you to help me.”
He spoke in soft, courtly tones, and did not mention his Republican opponent. He stressed that it would be “an honor and privilege” to represent the district in Tallahassee.
Hill talked about economic development he helped bring to Liberty County, calling the “crowning jewel” an effort to attract a $100 million Georgia Pacific plant.
As a former schoolteacher and school superintendent, Hill was critical of the state’s current system of testing, and said he would work to bring the more successful districts in closer working contact with those that are struggling.
“The evaluation process is one thing that needs improvement,” he said. “The FCAT is a mess, it needs to be improved. I’m not a big fan of that process.”
Hill also stressed his opposition to privatizing prisons, and said he supported opening the new work camp at Franklin Correctional Institution, and keeping the existing Bay City Work Camp open in Apalachicola.
“I’ve been against privatizing from day one,” he said. “They’re interested in one thing. Profit.”
Shiver sees threat from development
Next up was Tony Shiver, a first-time candidate challenging incumbent Republican Pinki Jackel for the county commission seat representing Eastpoint and St. George Island.
“I reached the point in my life and took a look around and realized things aren’t like I want them to be,” he said. “I felt this is my time to step up and be counted and do something about it.”
Shiver said he has lived in Franklin County all but six months of his 54 years, contrasting himself with Jackel, who he said was born in Jefferson County.
“She married an individual who is now a well-known attorney in Atlanta, Georgia,” he said. “She came down here and arrived here at the time of the land boom, to make a profit.”
Shiver, who has so far run a low-key campaign, lodged a full-throated shot at his opponent.
“There are things that are going along in our county right now that are manipulating change behind the scenes we really don’t need,” he said. “We need improvements, we need amenities, we need the little niceties put here. But we don’t need our home destroyed and manipulated into something it’s not. I’m fighting to keep the things the way they are.”
Shiver, who was employed in the seafood industry before turning to law enforcement, said he is working on behalf of the seafood workers.
“I want them to be able to keep our bay,” he said. “The seafood workers of this place are not just a part of our economy; they are solders to keep our environment like it is.”
He said seafood workers and environmental organizations and state regulators “have fought for years to try to keep overwhelming development from coming. “We need controlled development but we don’t need our home destroyed for the sake of an individual select few making profit.”
Shiver took aim at Jackel, suggesting she is too close to the interests of land developers. “I would like for you to understand that it is happening. If you notice her advertisements and campaign commercials, if you look real hard, 85 percent of the people are all real estate people,” he said. “That is who her ties are. That is her clique; that is her group.”
Lawson denounces opponent’s partisanship
Former State Senator Al Lawson, challenging incumbent Republican Congressman Steve Southerland to represent District 2, was last to address the group.
“Franklin County has always been a county very dear to me during the 28 years I served (in the Florida Senate and House), like an adopted hometown for me,” he said.
Lawson told of how during a campaign stop early in this career, an Eastpoint woman working as a shucker insisted he down a glass of raw oysters to prove he really wanted their votes.
“I said ‘Well bring them on,” he said. “Ever since then I’ve been eating oysters.”
Lawson said he has been motivated to run for Congress because partisan gridlock has broken the way Washington works.
“People don’t want to work with each other and that’s not what America’s all about,” he said. “In order for us to be successful, we have to work with each other.
“When you go to war you don’t ask the person next to you ‘Are you a Republican or are you a Democrat?’ You pull together and do what is necessary to defend our country,” Lawson said.
He promised to put the needs of constituents first, and listed a series of positions, to preserve Social Security and Medicare, to boost infrastructure funding and money invested in universities, and to seek creation of an ocean initiative for the Gulf of Mexico.
“You don’t have to wonder where I’m coming from when it comes down to Medicare and Social Security,” he said. “In Medicare some of the people want to change the game after you’ve paid. It’s in the (Paul) Ryan bill and what they want to do is give someone younger than me a voucher.”
Lawson said infrastructure funding and boosting money for universities “has always been an area that provides jobs. It will create more jobs than you can think of. That’s where our energy needs to be.”
The 64-year-old lawmaker and insurance executive took aim at Southerland’s core constituency on the conservative edge of the Republican Party. “You can’t go out representing the Tea Party and all these other groups and put the people you represent first,” Lawson said. “I fought from the time I entered the legislature to protect jobs, to keep people working, to show that someone really cared about them.”
He said he long fought against prison privatization, and remained opposed to offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. “You need to invest in our workers; you need to invest in the state of Florida,” Lawson said.
He said the situation in Apalachicola Bay is not unexpected and urged the federal government to approve the fishery disaster declaration sought by Florida’s legislative delegation, to go towards reshelling efforts in the bay.
“We knew eventually it’s going to have an effect when you allow Atlanta to take five million gallons a day and sent it over the Lake Lanier,” he said. “We knew with the BP oil spill, everyone was encouraged to work the winter bars, and we knew eventually it would have a devastating effect and now we’re seeing that effect.
“This bay is the most productive bay in America,” Lawson said. “We know what happens with the oil spill and it is still going on. Now we have to fight to make sure when the money is released Franklin County gets their fair share.”
Lawson closed with a direct attack on Southerland’s campaign strategy to paint him as a career politician who has voted to raise his salary.
“When I came in to the legislature I made $12,000, and over 28 years my salary got up to $30,000 and then we cut our salary back to $28,000 because state workers didn’t get a raise. The legislature raises were tied in to whatever raises the state workers receive,” he said.
“What is interesting about Mr. Southerland’s comment is that he made more money in two years, (close to $350,000). I did not make that in 20 years,” Lawson said.
“They are just trying to find something to tear you down and to deceive voters to think that all you were doing in the legislature is giving yourself a pay raise, but not talking about how you protect Apalachicola Bay. They’re not talking about how you protect water across the state of Florida, or how you’re fighting for better schools or health care needs.
“It’s unbelievable when a person would talk about income, when he probably didn’t deserve the $174,000 he made, compared to what we’ve had,” Lawson said. “The only things he’s filed up there are three funeral home bills to help the funeral industry that he works in. And he’s gone straight down party line and not worked with colleagues on the other side.”