The Democratic challengers to Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland in the Second Congressional District agree they must unify to beat him – but lingering bad blood from their party’s 2010 primary could give the incumbent, a Tea Party favorite, the winning edge in November’s general election, reports Margie Menzel of the News Service of Florida.
The newly-drawn district stretches from the eastern part of the Florida Panhandle into the Big Bend and north-central Florida. It includes Tallahassee, the state capital, and Southerland’s hometown of Panama City, and is nearly 40 percent rural.
Registered Democrats far outnumber Republicans in the district, but GOP presidential candidate John McCain won the area in 2008 over Democrat Barack Obama by margin of 52 to 47 percent. In 2010, Republican Rick Scott lost to Democrat Alex Sink, 51.6 to 44.8 percent, in the governor’s race.
“I hope I’m wrong, but I have an awful feeling Southerland is going to win,” said Nancy Argenziano, a former Republican state lawmaker and former Public Service Commission chairwoman who once hoped to challenge Southerland herself.
But C.J. Marshall, campaign manager for two-term state Rep. Leonard Bembry of Greenville, who’s vying for the Democratic nomination, disagreed.
“I think the Democrats are hungry to defeat Steve Southerland,” Marshall said. “That will overcome any residual chatter from the 2010 campaign.”
The Democratic primary is widely viewed as a race between Bembry and former state Sen. Al Lawson of Tallahassee, a 28-year lawmaker. Also running are Alvin Peters of Panama City, president of an at-risk high school and former chairman of the Bay County Democratic Executive Committee, and Mark Schlakman, program director at Florida State University’s Center for the Advancement of Human Rights and former special counsel to the late Gov. Lawton Chiles.
Lawson narrowly lost the 2010 Democratic primary to then-Congressman Allen Boyd, a seven-term incumbent, by a margin of 51 to 49 percent. That set the scene for newcomer Southerland to catch the conservative tide that swept a Republican majority into the U.S. House of Representatives. Southerland beat Boyd by 53 to 41 percent, while independent candidates took the remaining votes.
“I know Boyd was very angry with Lawson,” said Argenziano, who lost a court challenge in March to run as a Democrat against Southerland. She’s now running for Florida House District 34 as an independent.
Argenziano said that while still a candidate for Congress, she met with Boyd, who told her he’d had to spend so much time and money fending off Lawson’s 2010 challenge that he was badly positioned for the general election. A Blue Dog Democrat, he’d finally backed President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul after insisting on a more fiscally conservative, “pay-go” approach. Boyd was perceived as vulnerable and became a national target for GOP fundraising.
“He felt Al Lawson cost him that seat,” Argenziano said.
Now Boyd is backing Bembry, whom he described as a candidate who “would make the electorate proud…I’ve served with and known Mr. Lawson a long time, and I’m not a fan of Al Lawson’s.”
For that reason, Peters told the Tallahassee Democrat editorial board last month, the stage is set for a Southerland victory this year.
“In 2010, we had the Boyd-Lawson primary. An injured Allen Boyd emerged from that primary,” Peters said, “and he lost in the general election.”
Peters said uniting the Democratic constituencies was the first step in beating Southerland.
“You can’t carry a chip on your shoulder about Allen Boyd or Al Lawson,” he said. “And I think there’s still a lot of bad blood between the Boyd supporters and the Lawson supporters.”
“I welcome Allen Boyd supporters,” Lawson responded. “It’s about winning this seat.”
Internal polls by Democratic organizations show Lawson leading Bembry. In fund-raising, reports filed with the Federal Elections Commission show that as of June 30, Lawson had $113,088 on hand, Bembry had $63,621 and Peters had $23,671. Schlakman, who qualified for the race on June 8, at virtually the last minute, said Wednesday he has $15,000 in hand and pledges for more going into the primary.
Lawson is trying to rise above accusations of partisan bickering. He said he’s friendly with Bembry and “helped him with his [legislative] bills.” He’s friends with Schlakman, too.
As to Boyd, Lawson said, “I did not cost him the  election. I tried to help him win.” But he also said that when he reached out to Boyd, “he was very bitter. But I’m not that kind of guy.”
Although Peters is taking the position that only an out-and-out Obama supporter can lead the party to victory in District 2, Bembry and Lawson have often crossed the partisan aisle during their legislative careers.
Lawson, for instance, opposed his party by supporting school vouchers and working against the “FairDistricts” Amendments 5 and 6 in 2010 that changed the reapportionment process. Bembry voted with state Republicans for a resolution on the November ballot opposing the federal Affordable Care Act in Florida.
Argenziano said she supports Lawson “as long as he doesn’t cozy up with the Republicans in Congress on as many things as he did in the Legislature – because they’re killing us.”
Karen Woodall, a lobbyist who tends further left than Lawson, said she’s supporting him despite the times they’ve disagreed.
“I know what he did wrong, but I know what he did right,” she said. “He’s been right more often than not, on the issues I care about.”
Bembry is touting his background as a farmer, businessman and lawmaker. Peters, an attorney, also coaches youth soccer and baseball and is president of a Head Start program. Schlakman, a national-security expert who worked in the Clinton Administration, was a special advisor to former Gov. Jeb Bush and former U.S. Senator Bob Graham.
All the candidates say they would fight for the district in Congress.
Marshall, Bembry’s campaign manager, predicted that this year the Democrats would pull together. He said Bembry would support the winner of the primary.
“He got in this race knowing we needed someone different to represent us in Washington, D.C.,” Marshall said, “and we firmly believe the other candidates would do the same thing.”