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Blue America: Rick Penberthy, FL-5th


The first time I spoke with Rick Penberthy, Democratic candidate for Florida’s 5th congressional district, I asked him what the biggest cities in the district are. I’m a geography buff but I had never heard of Spring Hill, Citrus Springs, Zephryhills. I may have heard of Land o’ Lakes (but I thought that was in Wisconsin).

Florida’s 5th CD is fairly rural, with undeveloped beaches and with a huge retirement population, mostly former Midwesterners living inland who took the I-75 down to this very, very different Florida than Miami or the Gold Coast. There are over a quarter million residents on Social Security, more than any other congressional district in the country, and more military retirees than anywhere else as well. Prior to 2002, when state Republicans gerrymandered it, this had been a Democratic district. In November, it will turn Democratic again.

You doubt my prediction? You’re not alone. It’s not rated a first or second tier race by the DCCC, which has largely ignored the district, keeping the race comfortably beneath the radar.  But, then again, you’ve probably never spoken with Rick Penberthy.

Rick’s a teacher. He’s been teaching government, history, political science, economics, civics in high school and college for 23 years. He’s also a veteran of both the Army and the Navy. In other words, this is a guy who has the experience to talk about securing both our country and our Constitution. When students at Largo High School were asked to vote for a commencement speaker this year, the voted for Rick. He’s the kind of dedicated and inspiring teacher every parent wishes was educating their child.

Rick Penberthy spends a lot of time talking at VFW meetings. He feels comfortable and at home in their halls. He enlisted in the Army when he was 18 and later joined the Naval Reserves when he was in his early 30s. Serving his country seems to come as naturally to Rick as breathing. And being part of the military seemed like a perfectly natural way for him to do that — as perfectly natural as working for effective change for people through Congress seems now.

He’s a thoroughly "mainstream" kind of guy, married with 3 daughters and a son. He’s fully engaged in the issues that matter to the real lives of people in his community.  In a district with 42% of the voters registering as Republicans (38% Democrats and 20% independent), it could be a tough race against an entrenched, very well-funded incumbent beloved by the wealthy special interests for whom she is always ready to do a service.  But Rick says she can be defeated this year.

"I wouldn’t be here," he told me, "if I didn’t think she’s beatable. This isn’t a normal year and she’s not a normal incumbent."

The incumbent is Ginny Brown-Waite, and Rick was being very polite in saying she is "not a normal incumbent." Ginny Brown-Waite is mostly a garden variety Republican rubber stamp for Bush’s disastrous agenda, both domestic and international. And when she steps out of line, it’s always because Bush isn’t extreme and horrible enough. She’s probably best known for demanding that the body of every American soldier who died during the two World Wars be dug up and brought back to the U.S. because France wouldn’t attack Iraq. Even her fellow Republicans thought she was a tad… "not normal."

When Brown-Waite first ran, against a Democratic incumbent, she claimed she was pro-choice. Her voting record proves her a bold-faced liar and she has been on the wrong side of every single vote in Congress impacting women’s choice. Long a part of the unsavory and disgraced Tom DeLay political machine in Congress, Brown-Waite has been dishonest in more ways than in just lying about issues. She is also connected to the Republican culture of corruption that is bankrupting and destroying the integrity and the functionality of our government in D.C.

Consistently dishonest and weak, Brown-Waite absurdly tries to present herself to Florida’s moderate voters as one of them. But her record paints the picture of a far right kook, terribly out of sync with the values and interests of the people who live in FL-05. She promised voters she would protect Social Security, for example, but her record shows a dangerous extremist willing to support Bush’s and the Republican Party’s goal of wrecking the most popular public program in the history of America.

The legislative scorecard that DMI, released rates every member of Congress based on how their votes impacted the middle class and it shows that she is one of the most right-wing members of the House with a record far, far, far from moderate on every single issue that has come before Congress. Her overall rating is a dismal "F" and shows a dangerous and radical extremist, masquerading as a normal American and a moderate.

Rick expects the Rove Republicans, with their backs up against the wall, to roll out their divisive wedge issues to try to scare and confuse people and to fire up their demoralized base. He doesn’t think it will work this time because even Republican voters are angry about Bush and his rubber stamp congressmen– and congresswomen– pushing intrusive government down everyone’s throat.

"No one likes intrusive government. People around here want to keep government out of our private lives. And we’re looking for tolerance, not bickering. Folks are tired of it."

Rick’s positions on the important issues of the day are crystal clear– and very, very different from the Big Business/Republican Party line followed by Ginny Brown-Waite. He doesn’t play word games or try to hedge and mislead voters the way his opponent does. "We must begin to redeploy our troops immediately" is how he starts the Iraq discussion. Affordable health care for all Americans is best achieved through a single payer system. These are the kinds of issues that will makes our lives better and they are the kinds of issues Republicans like Brown-Waite and their Corporate sponsors will fight tooth and nail to prevent.

Rick seems really energized and optimistic. He sees 2006 as a year for a sea change in American politics. With the Republican Party tied to both incompetence and corruption, he believes moderate voters feel uncomfortable supporting them any longer. He’s campaigning on matters that are important to people in his district. National issues are just one part of that.

"In this part of the country," he explains, "the most important issue is always about how to manage growth. Water is a crucial issue to the people in this district."

Rick and his family live on a small farm and he is filled with ideas about desalinization plants and the dangers of sink holes (caused by over-pumping the shallow aquifer in a mad, unregulated rush to willy-nilly development). The wonk in Rick comes out when he starts talking about solar energy and biomass, two alternative energy sources that are perfect for his part of Florida.

He understands everything about why Brazil is over 90% independent of foreign oil and why we’re not — and he’s ready to roll up his sleeves and get busy on it — more than ready, in fact! Independence from foreign oil is one of his big passions and he thinks the U.S. needs the equivalent of "a Manhattan Project for alternative energy."

The last time I heard anything about Brown-Waite was some kind of cockamamie tactic to hold up Congress– which she did for 2 hours– complaining about a procedural vote to make Bill Clinton’s boyhood home in Hope, Arkansas a national monument. She was trying to say that Bush’s plan to sell U.S. ports to his family’s business associates in Dubai was Clinton’s fault. This is just the kind of nonsense Americans are sick and tired of already. Even House Republicans think she’s out of her mind and only 11 Republicans in the entire House supported her; the final vote: 409 in favor and 12 opposed (Ginny Brown-Waite plus 11 right-wing fanatics).

Americans are sick of mean, angry, self-centered partisans like Ginny Brown-Waite. It’s time we had adults running our government again.

This weekend we’re going to try something new in the way of fundraising and I hope everyone participates to their own level of comfort. I love it when someone sends $100. And I also love it when someone sends $5.00. Look at this postcard.


Graphic designer Randy J. Hunt at Citizenscholar put together this "firedoglake netroots" card for Rick’s campaign. Every $6 donation will print and deliver 21 firedoglake/netroots-sponsored postcards. $1,400 will sponsor 5,000 direct mail pieces, printed and delivered, and $4,200 will sponsor 15,000 direct mail pieces, printed and delivered.

A little incentive– above and beyond helping a truly worthy candidate get into a position where he can help make our country a better place– the first 25 contributors this weekend, get a brand new 2-CD set called CHARLIE PRIDE ANTHOLOGY, 40 smash hits by the most successful African-American in the history of country music.

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Howie Klein

Howie Klein

Howie Klein spent much of his life wandering around the world living in places like Afghanistan, Nepal, Holland and Morocco. He moved backed to America when Richard Nixon resigned and promptly helped start the first punk rock radio show in the country and then a DIY punk rock record label. His adventures in the music business ended a couple of years ago when he retired as president of Reprise Records. He began blogging almost immediately, starting Down With Tyranny. Jane taught him html while he held one of her dogs at a party. He is a raw foodist, lives in L.A., swims and hikes every day, thinks Howard Dean could be a president as great as FDR and will never be completely happy until Bush and Cheney are behind bars.