The race for State House Representative in District 69 hasn’t quite heated up yet, but that’s no reason for voters to think that it won’t be an important race.
Incumbent Keith Fitzgerald (D) is seeking his third consecutive term in this district, which encompasses the northern half of Sarasota County and a small section of Manatee County. He was first elected in 2006, when he defeated Laura Benson (R) by a margin of 2 percent.
He triumphed over Benson again in the next election cycle, no small feat in a district where Republicans outnumber Democrats three to two.
Fitzgerald was named “Best Politician Who Keeps it Real” in October 2009 by “The 941,” Creative Loafing’s Sun Coast blog.
The article attributed Fitzgerald’s success in a decidedly Republican district to his “no-nonsense style of speaking truth” and his ability to “criticize or praise anyone and everyone, including himself.”
A self-proclaimed calls-‘em-like-he-sees-‘em type, Fitzgerald said in a phone interview last week that he believes it’s his pragmatism and his ability to come up with answers and positions on his own that appeals most to voters.
He was also quick to point out that his district behaves more independently than the numbers would indicate.
“They’ll vote for the best candidate regardless of party,” he said of his constituents. “Obviously that helps a Democrat [in this area].”
Because of his training in objective protocol as social scientist, Fitzgerald said he is not moved by the ladder-climbing agenda of many politicians.
“I think people are very much career-oriented in politics,” he said. “That doesn’t really motivate me in and of itself.”
Rather, it was a sense of obligation that got Fitzgerald into politics in the first place and has kept him on the campaign trail ever since.
“I think I made a professional choice a long time ago to combine my interest in philosophy and theory” with the practice of politics, Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald holds a Ph.D. in political science from Indiana University. He moved to Sarasota with his wife, Angela Baker, and their two children in 1994 when he was offered a teaching position at New College of Florida.
Shortly thereafter, Fitzgerald said he found himself being asked to give talks to groups, since there were few academics in the area who knew about politics on a professional level.
“People frequently told me I had skills that were pretty uncommon,” he said, such as an ability to articulate hopes and aspirations at a time when the country was feeling vulnerable.
“I thought I had a responsibility to use the skills and talents I had acquired,” Fitzgerald said.
From his perspective, politics were moving in the wrong direction, and he wanted to help.
“I decided to get off sidelines and get into the game,” he said.
Now that he’s been in the game for a few years, Fitzgerald believes he has reached a point where he has some real influence on outcomes in the political world, and doesn’t think the process would work as well if he didn’t run for reelection.
Heavily committed to serving the community, Fitzgerald continues to teach in addition to performing his duties as a representative.
“I’m working long hours,” he said.
Fitzgerald, who is away from his family for work several weekends at a time, admits that there is plenty of cost and sacrifice associated with his profession.
“That often makes you wonder if it’s worth it,” he said. “But somebody has to do the job. If there is no sacrifice, there are no solutions to the problems.”
The immediate problem in his district, and everywhere, Fitzgerald said, is that the drowning economy and the high number of people losing jobs has created an overwhelming feeling of insecurity.
His top priorities are to “get people back to work, grow the economy and give people a sense that there are better days ahead.”
To do this, Fitzgerald has continually worked toward good government reform, beginning with his first term. He said his motivation comes from a sense that Americans don’t believe that politics are there to serve them, but that they’re there to serve special interests.
Finding this idea unsavory, he wants to change the rules of the game with a series of legislative initiatives, hopefully restoring citizens’ faith in the political process.
Some of these initiatives include provisions for developing a comprehensive alternative energy program, which Fitzgerald said will tie his first two goals together.
“Government does have a constructive role to play in focusing on concrete problems,” like the energy crisis, Fitzgerald said.
His only challenger, Ray Pilon (R), is not of the same opinion.
“Big government can’t make anybody do anything,” Pilon said in a phone interview last week.
Pilon has been extensively involved with local government in the Sarasota area, where he has lived with his wife and two sons for most of the last 35 years.
Before relocating to Florida, Pilon and his wife, Casey, lived in Michigan, where Pilon received a B.S. in sociological studies from Northern Michigan University.
Pilon prides himself on his background of community involvement.
After a career in law enforcement and a foray into the private sector as executive vice president for a major cable company subsidiary in the 1980s, he was elected to serve on the Sarasota Board of County Commissioners from 1996 to 2000.
In 2001 he joined the Peace River Manasota Water Supply Authority as community and government affairs director, a position he continues to hold.
As director, Pilon works to coordinate the efforts of the four county commissions—Charlotte, DeSoto, Manatee and Sarasota—that make up the Authority.
In his eight years in that position, Pilon has been successful in establishing capital funding for the Peace River Water Authority and regional expansion projects, “including the development of future alternative and environmentally sustainable water resources,” according to his campaign Web site.
He is also the immediate past Chairman of Circus Sarasota, a non-profit, arts-oriented community service organization.
“The main reason [I’m running for this seat] is I know I have a better connection to this community,” Pilon said.
He believes the district needs better representation, especially with the current economy, which, along with job creation, comprises Pilon’s major concerns.
To kickstart the economy, he said, the state needs to reform the education system and train people from the bottom up so they can secure high-paying jobs.
“Top priorities are on everyone’s mind right now, and it’s what you’re going to do with them [that matters],” he said.
Under Florida’s current system, Pilon said, money for public schools is allocated equally throughout the state, with the majority of funding going to school systems that contain a minority of the tax base to cover the difference.
In Sarasota County, school districts must go to referendum every four years to be able to raise money on their own, and at present they are limited to raising a quarter of a million dollars.
Pilon said that in general, the system is good, but individual school districts should have more autonomy and flexibility, especially with funding themselves. He thinks that districts that are able and willing to contribute more money to education should do so without restrictions on dollar amount or allocation to other districts.
“One of the toughest topics is how we are able to retain the accountability,” he said. “Not only for the teachers but for the students.”
Another of Pilon’s priorities is reforming the criminal justice system.
To function in a more efficient way, he said, there must be more funding for the courts and all levels of law enforcement and a system ensuring the right people make it into the courts.
On his Web site, Pilon states that a healthy economy depends on low taxes, a skilled workforce, and a regulatory environment that encourages job creation and entrepreneurship, all of which he will work to ensure – pretty standard fare for a Republican, Pilon concedes.
“I am a Republican and I do believe in fiscal conservatism,” Pilon said. “I believe highly in both personal and corporate responsibility.”
He argues that if the proper environment is created, businesses will be able to thrive.
The first step is putting people back to work, which could entail lifting several restrictions from current business practices.
After that, though, he said there will still be a necessity for regulations on business, mostly to protect consumers.
Pilon would like to see those regulations applied to small businesses, which he said comprise the majority in Florida.
“Other than that,” he said, “government needs to get out of the way.”
Pilon made news in December when he was officially endorsed by Florida House Majority leader and fellow Republican Adam Hasner.
While a Republican supporting another Republican seems insignificant, it’s important for Pilon because it shows that the GOP is taking this race seriously, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune’s Political Insider blog.
Other endorsements include Congressman Vern Buchanan, State House Representative Ron Reagan, former Florida State Senators Lisa Carlton and Nancy Detert and former Florida Senate President John McKay.
— Erin Jester
3 years ago
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