Rep. Steve Southerland Could be Hounded by Blue Dog II in 2nd District

By: Kenric Ward | Posted: March 22, 2012 3:55 AM
Alvin Peters

Alvin Peters

U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland, a funeral home director by trade, buried one blue dog Democrat in 2010. Depending on who emerges from a four-way Democratic primary, he aims to take down another this fall.

The freshman congressman ousted longtime Democratic Rep. Alan Boyd in the North Florida district as Republicans swept House seats across the country in the midterm election.

Southerland could face somewhat stiffer headwinds this year, as his 2nd Congressional District has been redrawn to include all of Tallahassee, and therefore more Democratic voters.

Four Democrats are in the race with hopes of knocking out Southerland, a tea party favorite. Their task may have gotten easier with the withdrawal of independent Nancy Argenziano on Wednesday.

Former state Sen. Al Lawson, who fought the blue dog Boyd for the Democratic nomination in 2010, is back this year.

The latest entrant to this year's primary field, Lawson has yet to ramp up his fundraising machine. But with longtime union support, the veteran legislator figures to be a contender.

Also working in his favor: CD 2 overlaps his former state Senate district, which he held from 2000 to 2010.

"He has nearly three decades representing people in North Florida, and he'll do the same in Congress," said Lawson spokesman John Reid.

But while Lawson enjoys liberal grassroots support, as well as down-home appeal for his work with Gulf Coast residents in the wake of the BP oil spill, he isn't necessarily beloved by his party's establishment.

Lawson's independent streak was evidenced most recently when he supported a "Parent Trigger" bill promoted by state GOP leaders. Though several national Democrats also endorse the grassroots-driven school-reform legislation (which failed on a tie vote in the state Senate), Argenziano called Lawson the "Go-to guy for Republicans."

In the early going, the Democratic Party favorite appears to be Leonard Bembry, a two-term state representative from Madison.

A farmer, businessman and member of the NRA, Bembry bears such a personal and political likeness to former Rep. Boyd that he might be dubbed Blue Dog II. Indeed, Bembry recently won the endorsement of the Blue Dog Caucus.

But the pack of the blue dogs -- fiscally conservative Democrats -- was thinned considerably in the 2010 elections, so the caucus's endorsement doesn't carry the weight it once did.

Nonetheless, Bembry has had early success at fundraising -- raking in $126,000 between Thanksgiving and New Year's -- and appears to be a favorite of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (though the DCCC does not generally endorse in contested primaries).

Chebon Marshall indicated that Bembry is already focused on a general election showdown.

“This race is about Congressman Southerland and his failed record in Congress. He has supported policies that would jeopardize Social Security and Medicare, he has opposed a broad payroll tax cut for working and middle class families and he has done nothing to make the Congress more responsive to the people," Marshall said.

Adds Bembry: "I am the one candidate that has won in a rural district in good years like 2008 and in tougher years for Democrats like 2010. I am the best candidate that can defeat Congressman Southerland this November and I am focused on that goal.”

Alvin Peters, a former Bay County Democratic Party chairman also running for the seat, says Bembry and Lawson have "legislative and endorsement baggage that slows them down."

"Representative Bembry has a solid anti-choice legislative history and voted for the ultrasound bill. Lawson has endorsed Charlie Crist and was opposed to [Fair Districts] Amendments 5 and 6.

"Their name recognition comes at a cost. People are looking for someone new," says Peters, an attorney who practices in Bay, Jackson, Gulf, Holmes, Calhoun and Washington counties.

Other counties in the sprawling Panhandle district are Franklin, Liberty, Gadsen, Leon, Wakulla, Jefferson, Taylor and Madison.

Touting a "pro-jobs and pro-small business" agenda, Peters, who formerly ran for mayor of Panama City, hasn't gotten much attention from the DCCC.

"They said, 'Raise $250,000 and give us a call back.' I took that as modest encouragement," he says wryly. So far, Peters has pulled in $60,000 in contributions.

Jay Liles, another announced Democratic candidate, did not respond to Sunshine State News' requests for comment.

Argenziano, who lost her court challenge on Tuesday to run as a Democrat, bowed out of the race Wednesday.

"I was the best chance to get crossover votes, but it's hard as (a third-party) independent to get the millions of dollars needed to run a congressional race," she lamented.

Now seeking a state House seat in her Citrus County home, the former Public Service Commission chairwoman opined that Southerland's re-election prospects have improved with her departure.

"I don't see one who can beat him," she said.

Other prognosticators see it differently, calculating that Argenziano, a disaffected former Republican, would have drawn votes from the eventual Democratic nominee.

In any event, Democrats have struggled in the conservative, mainly rural, district where even generations-long party members have begun voting Republican in recent years.

Meanwhile, Southerland is proceeding with business -- blasting away at the Obama administration and hammering Democrats for big spending.

He's also reached across the aisle to co-sponsor a bipartisan "No Budget, No Pay" bill proposed by the No Labels group. The House version, authored by Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee, would stop congressional pay if lawmakers fail to pass a budget on time.

Charlie Ranson, a No Labels activist who briefly sought the GOP nomination in CD 2 in 2010, says Southerland "is right on point."

"His co-sponsorship of No Budget, No Pay is a very good sign that he can cement his standing in the district."

The Republican National Congressional Committee calls the redrawn CD 2 a "competitive district," with Democratic registration climbing to 48.9 percent.

On the plus side for Southerland, he currently represents 91 percent of the constituents who will be in the new district. Still, he isn't taking anything for granted.

“While Democrats appear focused on ramping up their negative attack machine, Representative Southerland is busy concentrating on serving the people of Florida’s 2nd District. He’s proud of his partnership with the people, but we know there is a lot of work remaining in our fight to restore accountability in Washington. That’s where our focus remains," said the congressman's spokesman Matt McCullough.

Contact Kenric Ward at kward@sunshinestatenews.com or at (772) 801-5341.

Comments (2)

11:02AM JUL 24TH 2012
Sutherland is practically unresponsive to e-mail from constituents he responds only with form letters that do not address your correspondence at all his predecessor Alan Boyd always answered his mail I'm sure it was his staff but that is an extension of the man in office they responded in a way that you knew the response was written by someone who read your letter and when they could help his office took action on your behalf I'm voting for who ever convinces me that they will resume those practices for ALL constituents
11:33AM MAR 22ND 2012
Bembry actually voted for Parent Trigger.

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