Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Free Rides for Politicians, Few Choices for Voters Term Limits Help Some Incumbents Skate through '98 State Elections

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Free Rides for Politicians, Few Choices for Voters Term Limits Help Some Incumbents Skate through '98 State Elections

Article excerpt

TALLAHASSEE -- State Rep. Jim King of Jacksonville has lived a

politician's dream.

Since winning a seat in the state Legislature in 1986, the

Republican has run for re-election every two years and never had

an opponent. That's five elections, all shutouts.

But with incumbents raking in tens of thousands of dollars in

campaign cash and term limits ready to start, King apparently

will have a lot of company this fall: As many as a dozen

Northeast Florida lawmakers could run unopposed in the 1998

elections.

Candidates still have nearly two months to get on this year's

ballot. But so far, only two Northeast Florida lawmakers -- Rep.

Willye Dennis, D-Jacksonville, and Rep. Doug Wiles, D-St.

Augustine -- face opposition.

The state's eight-year term limits, which took effect in 1992,

are designed to force incumbents out of office. But at least

this year, experts say they are having the opposite effect

across Florida: Many lawmakers appear headed toward free rides

to re-election. Challengers will wait until 2000 to run, instead

of challenging big-buck incumbents this year.

"That [2000] is going to be when the big push is going to

happen," said Richard Scher, a political science professor at

the University of Florida.

Northeast Florida usually has at least a few uncontested seats

in each legislative election. Besides King, other longtime

lawmakers who have faced little opposition include Rep. Joe

Arnall, R-Jacksonville Beach, Rep. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville,

and Rep. John Thrasher, R-Orange Park.

Experts said they think it's bad for voters if large numbers of

lawmakers run uncontested.

"Competition always makes both incumbents and challengers more

aware of what the public's feelings are about key issues," said

Jim Kane, editor of Florida Voter, a publication that analyzes

state elections.

Nine of Northeast Florida's 10 House members -- with Wiles the

only exception -- will be forced from their seats in 2000. All

four of the area's senators will have to leave in 2002.

Longtime Rep. George Crady, D-Yulee, said he expects to see

five to seven candidates run for his seat in 2000. But Crady,

who has had close races in the past, said he doesn't expect to

have a serious challenger this year.

"I think most of them are gearing up for two years hence," said

Crady, whose district touches all or parts of five counties

including Nassau, Duval and Baker.

Newcomers could find it easier to wait until 2000 or 2002, in

part, because incumbents have a huge edge in raising money.

Northeast Florida lawmakers, who hold some of the most powerful

positions in the state, had already raised a combined $1.17

million, as of March 31, the latest date for reporting

contributions.

"I approach every two years as if I'm going to have a stiff

race," said King, the House majority leader, who had raised

about $93,000. Donated money unspent in an uncontested race can

be given to a political party or a non-profit agency or returned

to the contributor.

Experts say other factors, including the state's healthy

economy and the Republican Party's new dominance of the

Legislature, also could contribute to a lack of legislative

candidates this year. …

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