Judging by the expression on her face, Lizbeth Benacquisto appeared genuinely surprised — and touched — by the standing ovation given to her by her colleagues in the Senate upon her return to the Florida Legislature.
The date was April 23, 2014, and it was the day after Benacquisto finished second in the four-way Republican primary to replace Trey Radel, who had been forced from office after being arrested in Washington D.C. on drug charges. Radel represented Florida’s 19th Congressional District, which encompasses most of Lee County and includes Fort Myers and adjacent Cape Coral. CD 19 is a haven for retirees, wealthy and otherwise.
Almost immediately after Radel announced his resignation, Benacquisto was declared the front-runner to succeed Radel and restore dignity to the seat.
Then Curt Clawson entered the race, spent $4 million of his own money for his campaign — much of it in negative advertising directed at his opponents — and Benacquisto would be left wondering what happened.
Clawson received 38 percent of the vote to Benacquisto’s 25 percent and former state Rep. Paige Kreegel‘s 25 percent.
Benacquisto took time away from Tallahassee to campaign. The special election overlapped with much of the 2014 Legislative Session. Almost any other lawmaker would have been criticized for missing the committee meetings and floor votes which mark the sixty days of a legislative session. But not Benacquisto, one of the chamber’s most beloved members. Photographs from the day she walked through the double doors and onto the floor of the Florida Senate show her being applauded and embraced by both Joe Negron and Jack Latvala, two former rivals then locked in a bitter struggle to one day serve as president of the body.
Benacquisto returned to her post as Majority Leader and easily won re-election in the fall of 2014.
Despite how well things worked out for Benacquisto after her loss, she really should today be serving in Washington, D.C.
Lizbeth should be running for re-election to Congress.
Unfortunately for Benacquisto and the people of southwest Florida, that is not the case.
Instead, the situation is that Clawson is not running for re-election. He announced Thursday he wanted to be closer to his ailing father. Kudos to Clawson for being the dutiful son, but he should never have been in office in the first place.
Clawson was just another faux outsider with a real checkbook who bought himself a line on a resume.
So much of Clawson’s political story was the kind of gimmickry that should have served as a harbinger for what has transpired during the 2016 presidential race. His former basketball coach showed up in his campaign commercials, one of which Clawson paid tens of thousands of dollars to air during the Super Bowl. He challenged President Barack Obama to “man up” and compete against him a basketball shooting contest.
Of course, Clawson’s campaign was backed by Tea Partiers like Michele Bachman and Rand Paul, but those endorsements played well in a community home to, among others, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, himself an “outsider” who used his checkbooks to bludgeon his opponents.
The unending television ads Clawson was able to pay for during a compressed special election drowned out any real examination of his background.
The Naples Daily News posted an expose on the jobs record of Clawson and found that it included “an Obamacare bailout, layoffs for workers and outsourcing, a poor workplace safety record and even the death of a worker, Shawn Boone,” according to a story by then-Miami Herald reporter Marc Caputo.
Caputo asked Boone’s sister, Tammy Miser, what she thought of Clawson. This was her emailed response: “If Florida wants someone who will not respond to their needs, is in the habit of tearing down a community and does not act on the behalf of the public’s health and welfare then Mr. Clawson is the man for them.”
But if you have the kind of money Clawson has, that sort of damnation doesn’t really matter.
Once in office, Clawson was quickly revealed as less-than-ready for prime time.
During a House hearing in July of 2014, Clawson mistook Nisha Desai Biswal and Arun M. Kumar, two senior U.S. officials of Indian-American descent, for representatives of the Indian government, saying, “I am familiar with your country, I love your country. Anything I can do to make the relationship with India better, I’m willing and enthusiastic about doing so. […] Just as your capital is welcome here to produce good-paying jobs in the U.S., I’d like our capital to be welcome there. I ask cooperation and commitment and priority from your government in so doing. Can I have that?”
That was one of several “airballs,” Clawson heaved during his brief time in Congress. Allied with Reps. Bachmann, Marsha Blackburn, and Steve King, Clawson is one of those bury-your-head-in-the-sand-and-vote-against-everything conservatives who has gridlocked the nation’s capital.
Clawson voted against a temporary extension of a highway funding bill (which passed overwhelmingly) because he thought it relied on financing “gimmicks” that the government wouldn’t allow businesses to use, according to an analysis by Ledyard King of the USA Today. He also opposed the Student and Family Tax Simplification Act because he said it could have made undocumented immigrants eligible for tax credit refunds.
Clawson defied then-Speaker John Boehner. He was one of just ten Republicans not to support Paul Ryan as Boehner’s successor.
Meanwhile, it’s not exactly clear what Clawson accomplished in his first term, other than speaking some common sense on the issue of climate change.
No wonder Clawson is yet another politician stepping down because he wants to, as the cliché goes, spend more time with his family.
No matter how sick Clawson’s father is, the reality is Clawson is just another one of these rich guys who thought it would be neat to win an election, but found out how hard governing is once they are in office.
It’s telling that in the days that have followed Clawson’s decision to step away from politics, only one of his colleagues in the Florida delegation has released a statement to the press corps acknowledging his leaving.
With Clawson not running, Lizbeth Benacquisto has been given a second chance at possibly representing Florida’s 19th Congressional District. Several other candidates have already announced they will run or are considering it.
After the back-to-back disasters of Trey Radel and Curt Clawson, hopefully, the poor voters of southwest Florida will get it right this time.
Material from the Naples Daily News, Roll Call, and Wikipedia was used in this post.