North Florida State Senate Races Take Shape
An incumbent Republican senator drew a potentially tough challenger Tuesday as Florida Democrats look to reclaim a seat and dent the 26-14 Senate majority the GOP has held for the past eight years.
Perry McGriff, a longtime Gainesville insurance executive and former Florida Gator football and baseball standout, qualified as a Democratic candidate taking on Sen. Steve Oelrich, a Republican completing his first term in the Democratic voter-heavy district.
“It’s not going to be a cakewalk for anybody,” said McGriff, who lost the Democratic primary for the seat four years ago to former Rep. Ed Jennings, who then went on to lose to Oelrich. “It’s going to be a tough race, with both parties throwing a lot into it.”
While Oelrich was Alachua County Sheriff for 14 years before running for Senate, McGriff may match that name familiarity with voters in the district spanning eight counties. McGriff, 72, was a football end and baseball All-American at the University of Florida, one of four family members who played football at the school.
Oelrich was elected in 2006 succeeding Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua, who had held the seat since 2000 and left for an unsuccessful run for governor.
McGriff and Oelrich both filed campaign papers Tuesday, with the state’s second day of qualifying also seeing Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, make official his bid for the Cabinet post of Chief Financial Officer and Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, draw a Democratic challenger in former Jacksonville TV anchor Deborah Gianoulis.
Gianoulis said that for the past six years, she’s been a community volunteer and education advocate. Earlier this spring, she helped organize opposition to legislation (SB 6) that would have eliminated teacher tenure, sponsored by Thrasher, who doubles as the chairman of the Florida Republican Party.
Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed the measure in a move that effectively signaled his eventual break with the state GOP.
Although a Democrat, Gianoulis cited late Republican Sen. Jim King, who preceded Thrasher in the Senate District 8, as her political role model.
“I will strive to follow Sen. King’s example of leadership and statesmanship,” she said. “I will listen to citizens rather than to special interests.”
While the seat held by Thrasher is heavily Republican, Oelrich has been serving in a district where Democrats hold a more than two-to-one advantage over the GOP in voter registration.
But Oelrich campaign manager Brian Delburn told the News Service of Florida that the incumbent has a firm understanding of the district and its voters.
“He has a strong record of service and believes in accountability in government and business,” Delburn said. “People respect that.”
McGriff was elected to the House in 2000. But he lost his bid for re-election two years later after reapportionment modified the district, reducing the Alachua County population and adding more voters from neighboring Marion County. McGriff narrowly lost to a Marion County Republican – Larry Cretul of Ocala, who went on to become House Speaker.
“Voters are concerned about jobs, jobs, jobs this year,” McGriff said. “People worry whether they can make their mortgage payments. But the gulf oil spill is also making people here more and more concerned about the environment, and I think those are the issues this election will turn on.”
Also qualifying Tuesday for the Cabinet post of attorney general were Democratic Sen. Dave Aronberg of Greenacres and Fort Lauderdale attorney Jim Lewis, who was crowded out of a growing field of Republican candidates and filed as a no-party contender. U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, a Bartow Republican, qualified as the first candidate in the race for agriculture commissioner.