In CD 2, Democrats, Steve Southerland swap hypocrisy charges

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The Florida Democratic Party Monday accused U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland of hypocrisy in accepting federal stimulus dollars as chair of the Early Learning Coalition of Northwest Florida – shortly before he ran for Congress and called the stimulus a “boondoggle.”

Southerland, a Republican first-termer from Panama City and a tea party favorite, is running for re-election in Congressional District 2 against former state Senate Democratic Leader Al Lawson. The race appears tighter than anticipated, with the National Republican Congressional Committee jumping in earlier this month with a $150,000 television ad buy.

“Congressman Southerland said he’d change Washington — but it’s becoming clear that all he’s done is gone Washington,” said Florida Democratic Party spokesman David Bergstein. “Just like the typical, hypocritical Washington politician he’s become, Southerland railed against the stimulus program — just one year after he accepted millions of dollars in stimulus funding himself.”

In 2009, Southerland’s last year as its chair, the early learning coalition was awarded two grants in stimulus funding, totaling just under $2.1 million. It spent about $500,000 that year, and Southerland stepped down as chairman in December 2009.

Southerland spokesman Matt McCullough scoffed at the accusation.

“To attack Rep. Southerland’s commitment to improving educational opportunities for young children shows just how far the Democrat Party will sink to grab power,” he said. “Under Steve’s leadership, the coalition put children first and did so in a fiscally responsible manner, returning $1 million in cost savings to the state over his last two fiscal years.

“At no point did Steve or the coalition request a single stimulus dollar, and of the $1.55 million in state and federal money allocated under his watch during the fiscal years starting July 2008 and July 2009, just sixth-tenths of one percent spent was stimulus money,” McCullough said.

Democrats also say that in the 2008-2009 fiscal year, the coalition received $11.6 in federal funding from the Department of Education, citing the coalition’s financial statements and audit documents. Yet at the same time, Southerland was also calling on the campaign trail for elimination of that agency.

“I think departments like the [U.S.] Department of Education, Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency – I think those are things that right now we can’t afford,” Southerland told the Suwannee County Republican Executive Committee in June 2010 in a video sent around by Democrats this week. “….Those are some of the departments I would cut right there.”

Material from the News Service of Florida was used in this report.

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Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.