In HD 7, a tame clash with few differences in unique district

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The race between Halsey Beshears and Robert Hill for a north Florida House seat has in some ways become an almost genteel affair, as a recent forum here showed. The two agreed on most of the issues, were understated in their disagreements, and neither launched any of the “zingers” that were the standard fare of the presidential debates, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

“What’s the point of being nasty to each other?” said Beshears, a president of the Florida Nursery, Growers & Landscape Association and a businessman, when asked if the two were always that nice.

Hill, who served for the last 12 years as Liberty County clerk of court, was similarly unsurprised by the tone.

“It has been that way,” said Hill, whose position required him to double as county administrator. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

The peace could come from the oddities of the district. It spans nine counties from Calhoun in the Panhandle to Lafayette in the Big Bend and also takes in a piece of Leon. It is essentially a new seat, covering at least a share of what used to be six different House seats, created by this year’s redistricting process.

In the money race, at least, Beshears has raised almost twice as much — almost $255,000, according to state campaign-finance records, against the more than $130,000 raised by Hill. The Republican Party of Florida has also used purported multi-candidate ads to boost Beshears.

But the district’s politics are slightly inscrutable. In 2010, more than 66 percent of registered voters were Democrats, but the district voted for GOP presidential nominee by 25 points two years earlier. Republican Gov. Rick Scott barely carried the area, winning by under 3.5 points in 2010.

District 7 also has a unique economy. It has the third-lowest percentage of its population working for private businesses among the state’s 120 House seats, according to a survey by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Perhaps because of that, neither of the candidates hews to a predictable party line. Both rail against the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, complaining that the state Constitution gives the group almost unfettered power to interfere with fishing and hunting.

“I think FWC needs to have to answer to at least someone,” Hill said.

Hill, the Democrat, is measured in his comments about the controversial Stand Your Ground self-defense law, which has come under increasing criticism – particularly by Democrats – after the February shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

“If there is an opportunity there to look at that and to revisit that, I would be okay with that,” Hill said. “But the basic principle, I support.”

Beshears opposes a review of the law.

But the Republican has likewise bolted from several positions that are common in the caucus he would join. He joins Hill in opposing efforts to privatize prisons in the area and knocks proposals to change the pension system for current state employees, comparing it to Beshears’ own business.

“When I make a deal with my employees when I hire them, I stick to that deal,” Beshears said.

Considering the nature of the district, it’s not surprising that both candidates talk about government workers with some degree of respect.

Beshears says any efforts to downsize government or payroll should be made when current employees leave. And he opposes school vouchers, saying many of the schools in the district are poor and need additional help.

“In our district, it’s not going to work. … I refuse to accept that it’s just a poor district and we just can’t do any better,” he said.

That leaves limited room for sharp ideological clashes, though a few differences emerged at a recent forum in Wakulla County. The potential for offshore drilling was one, with Hill highlighting the concerns the district faced after the 2010 disaster at a BP drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico.

While the area largely avoided direct damage, some in the seafood industry believe business was hurt by concerns about tainted fish.

“I do not support offshore drilling, as what we’re going through right now as a result of the oil spill a couple of years ago is scary enough and has been detrimental to the people of the coast in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and other states,” Hill said.

Beshears, though, said the state could move ahead with drilling if it used safe technology. He said the district would benefit economically.

“It’s all about jobs at the end of the day,” Beshears said.

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.