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Local Conservative Challenger Tests Anti-Incumbent Sentiment

The anti-incumbent mood supposedly sweeping the country this year will be tested later this month in Florida’s 6th congressional district, where conservative activist and self-described “political outsider” Don Browning is challenging eleven-term U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns in the August 24 Republican primary.

Voters in Clay and Duval counties — well, at least a portion of Duval County — will have a say in this contest, a race described by the feisty challenger as a classic “David vs. Goliath” struggle.

“And you know how that turned out,” joked Browning in a recent interview with the Jacksonville Observer.

Stearns, a longtime fixture in Washington political circles, hasn’t faced a primary challenge since 1990 when he crushed Larry Gallagher, a retired auto salesman from Lecanto who was waging his third campaign for the seat, garnering nearly 78 percent of the vote against his little-known rival.

Stearns is one of seven incumbents — and one of only two Republican lawmakers — in the 25-member Florida congressional delegation who faces a primary challenge on August 24. Congressman Vern Buchanan, a two-term conservative from Longboat Key, also drew a primary opponent.

Initially winning his U.S. House seat by defeating Democratic State House Speaker Jon Mills in one of the biggest political upsets of 1988, Stearns has always cultivated an image as something of an outsider himself while deftly using the huge trappings of incumbency to his advantage. However, the mere fact that he’s an incumbent — and a longstanding one at that — might not play as well as in the past, particularly in a year when voters in both parties appear increasingly angry and frustrated with officeholders at every level.

Browning believes he can tap into that growing anger and frustration.

Virtually ignored by the largest newspapers in the district, he also believes that his insurgent candidacy “is an upset in the making.” The response from voters, he says, has been overwhelming. “I’m really encouraged,” he said.

According to Browning, Stearns is a consummate career politician who symbolizes everything that’s wrong on Capitol Hill. “His idea of a backyard barbeque is a $1,000-per person fundraiser with corporate lobbyists,” said Browning, referring to a recent reception for the Ocala congressman in the backyard of a million-dollar townhouse in the nation’s capital — a townhouse, incidentally, that’s frequently used by a high-powered Democratic political consulting firm.

Stearns wasn’t always an insider. In fact, in 1988 he campaigned as a reformer of sorts, promising to abide by term limits while striving to change the culture in Washington.

He’s now part of that culture.

Most of his constituents, moreover, have probably long forgotten about his pledge during that campaign to serve no more than 12 years — a pledge, if honored, that would have brought his congressional career to an end ten years ago.

Unlike the late Tillie Fowler of Jacksonville, who was elected to Congress in 1992 under the slogan “Eight is Enough” and ultimately kept her word by refusing, as a matter of principle, to seek reelection to a fifth term in 2000, Stearns has been running like clockwork every two years since.

So much for elephants and long memories.

Reminiscent of Stearns more than twenty years ago, Browning is campaigning as this year’s reform candidate. But unlike the 22-year House veteran that he hopes to unseat, one gets the feeling that the white-haired resident of Weirsdale, a small lakefront community about 21 miles southeast of Ocala, actually means it when he says he wants to clean up the entire rotten system, including getting rid of the seniority system in Congress.

He makes a valid point. Once they’re established in the Beltway, too many members of Congress — Democrats and Republicans alike — forget who they’re representing.

After two or three terms, says Browning, “a congressperson will lose his or her soul to the special interests.” At that point, the special interest money flows in, creating a sense of entitlement, while enabling the once well-intentioned lawmakers to amass huge amounts of campaign cash to scare off potential rivals.

It’s a corrupt and self-perpetuating system, he says.

While stifling political debate and competition, the incumbent lawmakers no longer have to scrap and fight for every vote. Awash in campaign cash, they also feel they can afford to ignore the folks back home. In the end, their constituents suffer, becoming the “forgotten citizens” in the whole disturbingly depraved process.

Stearns is a perfect example. Swimming in special interest money, Stearns reported receipts of $290,500 from political action committees during this election cycle alone while sitting on a colossal $2.6 million war chest.

That’s usually enough to discourage a challenger, but every now and then somebody like Don Browning intrepidly rises to the occasion, throwing caution to the wind and demanding more from our representative democracy.

“I’m not interested in a career in Washington,” he says. “I want to go there and change the way things are done. We have to restore trust in our institutions. Once the American people lose faith in Congress — the so-called ‘People’s House’ — it’s the beginning of the end of the country,” he warns. “We can’t let that happen.”

A lifelong Republican, Browning isn’t exactly a political newcomer. He’s actually been elected to public office, serving on the Winter Springs city council from 1974 to 1976, an experience that included a brief stint as vice mayor of that Seminole County community. He also served as the city’s fire commissioner.

Believing that he had accomplished what he set out to do, Browning didn’t run for reelection when his term ended. “I wasn’t interested in becoming a career politician,“ he said, gently poking fun at Stearns.

That’s not to say that he hasn’t been fully engaged in public life. Quite the opposite is true. If his resume is any indication, he’s the epitome of a citizen-activist and takes his civic duties and responsibilities seriously.

He’s been very active, serving on the Florida Council for Arts and Culture since 2007 and as a member of the board of the Marion Cultural Alliance, a non-profit organization that operates the Brick City Center for the Arts in Ocala as part of its mission to promote and support cultural activities in Marion County.

A pro-growth environmentalist, Browning also served on the Marion County Aquifer/Springs Task Force where he frequently clashed with left-leaning, anti-growth environmental groups. A few years ago, he was recognized by President George W. Bush on Earth Day for his contributions to the pro-development Destination Florida.

He’s also a former board member and secretary of the Florida Juvenile Justice Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, founded in 1994, that works closely with troubled youth. In that capacity Browning worked closely with Walter McNeil, a former Tallahassee police chief who now serves as Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections.

A Navy veteran and successful entrepreneur — he was the founder and CEO of Browning Forms and Systems, a hospital systems enterprise — and an accomplished wildlife photographer whose works grace the walls of the governor’s office and other parts of the state capital building in Tallahassee, Browning, an avid sportsman, also leads a robust personal life. Among other endeavors, he’s an aerobatic pilot and sailboat-racing skipper. He’s also a lifelong member of the NRA.

Claiming that he “bleeds red, white and blue,” Browning wants to stop what he describes as the country’s “slide into socialism” — a trend, he says, that started long before the Obama Presidency.

Browning contends that he’s the true conservative in the race. How conservative is he? Well, he colorfully describes Gainesville — the district’s Democratic stronghold — as the “Berkeley of the East.”

His platform, peppered with language reflecting the country’s growing discontent with politics as usual, focuses on three key issues — reforming Congress by ending “the archaic seniority system,” creating jobs in his recession-ravaged district, and reducing the $13.3 trillion national debt.

The most important thing — the real catalyst for his candidacy, he says — is to rebuild the trust between Congress and the American people that has been badly eroded during the past few administrations.

Browning is also strongly opposed to the Obama Administration’s recent moratorium on offshore-drilling, a proposal supported by Stearns. He also advocates a comprehensive energy strategy to help lower the cost of energy, especially fossil fuels, while making the 6th District a leader in alternative fuel development.

He also favors the Fair Tax, a proposal that would replace most federal income taxes with a national sales tax.

The highly analytical insurgent, who has carefully combed through his opponent’s voting record, strongly refutes Stearns’ conservative credentials, calling into question the congressman’s relatively high ratings from conservative, taxpayer organizations such as National Taxpayers Union and the Citizens Against Government Waste.

“He puts his earmark amendments in bills that he then votes against, as was the case last year with HR 3288 — a 2010 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill — knowing full well that the legislation would be approved by the Democratic majority,” asserted Browning. Such clever sleight-of-hand, he said, enables Stearns and other GOP lawmakers to retain high rankings from conservative groups.

According to LegiStorm, a Washington, D.C.-based non-partisan organization, Stearns sponsored 46 earmarks totaling more than $85.8 million in fiscal years 2008-2010.

He also faults the Ocala congressman for failing to rise to a position of leadership during his 22 years in the House. “Despite his longevity, he’s never held a leadership position in the House,” scoffs the long-shot candidate.

Moreover, he argues, Stearns has become something of a “poster boy” for everything that’s wrong in lobbyist-dominated Washington. “The special interests and corporate lobbyists get their best bargain out of long-term members of Congress like Stearns,” says Browning.

“That‘s why congressional turnover — the need for ‘new blood’ — is so vitally important to our Republic,” he explained. “That’s the only way you can break the back of the special interests.”

On the campaign trail, the amiable and witty challenger promises not to exploit his youth against the 69-year-old Stearns, but he can’t always resist. “We need a younger person in there,” he said good-naturedly. Browning is 68, only a few months younger than the entrenched congressman he hopes to replace.

Browning is full of one-liners.

“Stearns started in Washington with a briefcase and traded it in for suitcase and eventually just moved in,” he quipped. There’s some truth to that. After all, his election to Congress more than twenty years ago was something of a homecoming for the Ocala restaurant and motel owner, especially given the fact that Stearns was born and raised in Washington, D.C. He was also educated there, earning a degree in electrical engineering from George Washington University in 1963 — long before he ever thought about venturing into the Sunshine State.

Browning has been highly critical of Stearns’ noticeable absence from the district — some constituents have referred to him as “the invisible congressman” — and his unwillingness to personally appear at candidate forums.

“He always uses surrogates, usually congressional staffers,” complains Browning, who recently filed a formal complaint with House Ethics Committee alleging that the longtime congressman was using paid congressional staffers for campaign purposes — a possible violation of House rules prohibiting such activity.

The highly creative artist-turned-political insurgent, who’s already spent $35,000 of his own money on his candidacy, is waging a credible grassroots campaign — a spirited effort that contrasts sharply to the rather uninspiring, run-of-the-mill reelection bid being waged by the rarely seen eleven-term incumbent.

Though disproportionately outspent — he raised only $26,900 as of June 30, about one percent of the cash on hand reported by Stearns at the end of the same reporting period — Browning recently purchased an eye-catching 40’ x 64’ digital billboard at the heavily-traveled intersection of U.S. Highways 17 and 441 in downtown Ocala. He’s also been sending out 100,000 e-mails every week for the past month and has distributed an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 pieces of literature.

His yard signs are also beginning to dot the district’s landscape and he plans to start airing radio spots on selected AM and FM stations throughout the district in the next few weeks.

Asked if he really expects to defeat Stearns in the August 24 primary, Browning sounded surprisingly confident. “I have a feeling Rip Van Winkle is about to awaken from his slumber,” he said grinningly as he hammered another large Browning-for-Congress sign into the ground.

37 Responses »

  1. Men seem to think that if they hide from the people, the people will forget to scrutinize their behavior and intentions. Men that will not debate men in an open forum are to be questioned. Where is their backbone? What are they concealing from the unaware voter? Why shouldn't the voters know the dirty little secrets of professional politicians? Has anyone but me had enough? My wife and I have had it!!!!!!!!!!

    It is time to make your voice be heard. This guy, though he is handsome is not a professional polititian! He is a man that is willing to take time out of his life and truly represent the people of District 6!

    Come on people!!

    • Browning is the same color, texture, and smell as the change Hussein brought.

    • "Men that will not debate men in an open forum are to be questioned." What are they concealing from the unaware voter? Why shouldn't the voters know the dirty little secrets of professional politicians?

      I agree on debate and an open forum. What I don't understand is who you are talking about. This is not a true statement of all so called " professional " politicians. Cliff Stearns record stands for itself. Have you read it? Do you know how he has voted? Have you talked to him?
      Don't throw the baby out with the dish water. If you need to have a picture to hang on your wall of Florida birds than Browning is your man. But if you want a voice in Washington you have it in Cliff Stearns. Who has held town hall meeting for as long as he has held office Term limits! These are what I use every time I vote

  2. Why waste your time? Cliff Stearns is a good, honorable Congressman and will be re-elected easily.

    • "a good, honorable Congressman "

      no such thing!

      • Good and honorable is not enough anymore. Name 4 things he has done for the district in the past 22 years. Hard to remember isn't it?

      • Stearns has failed at protecting his constituents, Stearns is not good enough to meet Don in debate. Stearns has no honor as he lies about not meeting Don in debate. I and my entire family witnessed this at the Marion REC. John Cockwish Stearns federal employee stated "Stears cant show up he has a 90 day blackout"
        Stearns wont show up But the federal government shows to lie for him.
        Stearns violated the constitutional rights of every American, and US constitutional sovereignty when he voted YES for CAFTA,
        Only the illiterate or the paid for would call Cliffy and staff honera-Bull

        We cant take back Washington if we cant even take back the Republican party. Greer Steel I checked the official list ... yup! Stearns is next!!

        GET OUT! GET OUT ! GET OUT! >>>>>----------------------->

    • Why waste our time? Because Cliff Stearns is a Do Nothing congressman who lives the good life while the citizens are suffering under his 22 years of "service". America will fail if we do not fill Congress with brave and honorable men and women. Vote for Don Browning

      • I wish he would have been a do nothing POS when he voted yes on CAFTA.
        I call it treason against the USA

    • Cliff Stearns has been very supportive of Florida. On the other hand, in two areas of the Obama Administration exercising take over authority, Cliff Stearns has not taken a leadership role in preventing such a takeover.
      1) Cliff Stearns supported the Obama moratorium on offshore drilling. The issue is not offshore drilling, it is the failure of some companies to abide by safe regulations. In the case of the Obama administration it was another opportunity to "not let a crisis go to waste". The effect is more unemployment by people who had nothing to do with the oil spill or the decisions, and an opportunity by the Administration to bring more government control over industry. The failure of Deep Water Horizon and the decisions were BP's and the Obama Administration Interior Department. The BHO Administration knew there were problems 6 weeks before the Deep Water Horizon rig blew up and sank, but did nothing to change the outcome for the better when there were in fact highly trained resources with experience to address the very issues. We don't need a new drilling moratorium, we need new leadership and a prevention from a government takeover of the private sector.
      2) Cliff Stearns does not oppose the Obama Administration EPA conclusion that Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is dangerous. CO2 is harmless and has nothing to do with the myth of Global Warming. http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=9406 There is of course naturally occurring Climate Change, just like there are changes in seasons and naturally occurring rising and setting of the sun, none of which are related to Carbon Dioxide. CO2 is what plants use for food and an increase in CO2 gives increased crop yields.http://wp.me/pCqFd-2E The Obama Administration is using the regulation of CO2 to yet control another area of our lives.

      • CO2 is what the Stearns voters are breathing. The Definition of insanity is " Trying the same thing expecting different results"

        IS ANYONE HAPPY WITH THE STATE OF THE NATION RIGHT NOW???

        Stearns and his liberal friends are responsible for our nation's downfall. Or maybe he would just blame Bush??
        Want to see a great American comeback Send Don Browning to Washington to clean house.

  3. 22 years is enough of Cliff Stearns! Stearns is part of the crowd that got us in the mess we are in. We the People need to be heard instead of all the "friends" Mr, Stearns has "accumulated".

  4. Thanks for the insight. I wasn't even aware Stearns had a primary challenger. Here's hoping the voters think after 22 years feasting on the swill in the Washington pig trough it's time to flush Cliff down the toilet.

  5. Keeping a low profile like Cliff Stearns has does NOT make him a good honorable Congressman. Don Browning SHOULD get your support and backing.
    Help RESTORE America, out with the entrenched and in with the fresh approach.

  6. Mr. Browning will be a welcome change to this guy! Have you ever tried to contact congressman Stearns. He will never meet with you! He brags about 500 town hall meetings and how he serves the voters but that averages 22 hours a year when you can see or talk to your congressman. He's just living off the people. Typical politician!

  7. Don has my vote. Cliff Stearns ran on term limits and still thinks they are needed. Are you kidding me. 22 years later, look where America is now. VOTE OUT all incumbents!

  8. Browning has no platform and no experience. Even with all the free (or did he pay for this fluff piece?) ink the Observer gives this old fart, he can't articulate a platform. Also, I wonder where are the Stearns quotes? Oh, you didn’t call him for an interview? That’s because Cliff Stearns would run circles around Browning intellectually, just as he will on Election Day.

  9. It's time a change. The big spender needs to be replaced after 22 years so we can reduce our debt. It's time for a change and Donald Browning is the man for Congress to replace Stearns.

    • The only Old Fart is the one sitting in Congress right now collecting dust and money. He has been unwilling to debate with Don Browning or show up at any Candidate Forums. I assume his Washington fundraisers with a cost of $1000.00 a ticket are more important to him. Get real - Stearns has had 22 years in Washington without much to show except the 3 million he's sitting on. We need Stearns to go! Vote Don Browning!

      • We need more than Stearns to go ,,,,, We need Don Browning to undo everything Stearns has done to the constitution. and we need Don Browning to run off all of the International NGOs and public private partnerships that Cliff has facilitated. Cliff has bankrupted the US by funneling billions to these organizations to save us from one fairy tail crisis after another.
        The lie that treaties override the Constitution needs to be stuck where the sun don't shine. Undo CAFTA Get in there Don lets get the republican party back from the liberals.... Then lets get our freedom and prosperity back!

  10. 22 years in Congress is too long for the big spenders. Let's put the right person in office to reduce our debt, to pass reasonable and user-friendly laws. The right person is Donald Browning.

  11. Think about it folks!! 22 years and 13trillion $ in debt. Browning is new blood and this is what we need and want! He has asked Sterns to debate anytime and any where, but Sterns debate??? That should tell you something right there. He has to check his schdule!!
    Browning is a straight shooter, call him, look him up, ask a question,
    I'll bet he will give you the time unlike Cliff Sterns. Please don't take my word for it check it out for yourself. Vote DON BROWNING for congress we will make a BIG change...

  12. This article really opened my eyes! I feel that some new blood and fresh eyes on our ever increasing problems is exactly what we need. Donald Browning has the attitude and hunger for change I have been looking for in my congressman. For our district and for our country please take the time to get to know this man and he will undoubtedly earn your respect and your vote.

    • And Don Got the coveted "Q" rating! Woo! Woo! That means he actually has fired a gun!
      Long ago when stearns was within his "term limits" lie. He told us " Guns scare me"

  13. Come own people its a time for change, Sterns has not done nothing for Florida , He wont come to gainesville nor debate with Browning , 22 years is long enough , We need a new Congressman someone that will stand up to Washington . I feel Browning is that man, Seems to me Sterns has deep pockets from Washington and our tax payer money for his use. COME ON AMERICA LETS SUPPORT BROWNING FOR OUR CONGRESSMAN !!!!!! Thanks Mr Browning for running ,

  14. Come on people its time for change., Sterns has not done nothing for Florida and he wont come to Gainesville nor debate with Browning. 22 years is long enough . We need a new Congressman someone that will stand up to Washington . I feel Browning is that man. Seems to me Sterns has deep pockets from Washington and tax payers money for his use . COME ON AMERICA LETS SUPPORT BROWNING FOR OUR CONGRESSMAN. THANKS MR BROWNING FOR RUNNING !!

  15. Don Browning represents the change we need in Congress.
    With a congressional approval rating of 10% it is very clear the American people
    are not being heard by the current leadership.

    Every vote will make a difference. We need change NOW.
    Don Browning has "the right stuff" to get the job done.

  16. DON BROWNING FALSIFIES NRA ENDORSEMENT

    I am an avid 2nd Amendment supporter. As such, I want to share with you what I've learned today:

    DON BROWNING FALSIFIES NRA ENDORSEMENT

    NRA REBUKES BROWNING – REQUESTS THAT HE CEASE & DESIST FROM USING ILLEGAL ENDORSEMENT
    Candidate Don Browning has falsified an endorsement from the National Rifle Association’s (NRA’s) Political Victory Fund. Browning recently wrote on his website “Don Browning Receives NRA “A” Rating. Also with his alleged endorsement he illegally used the NRA logo. In an official notice sent by email, Charles Cunningham, the NRA’s Director of Federal Affairs, wrote to Browning, you did not receive an A rating. Not only did Browning falsify the NRA rating, he even failed to submit the survey on time, submitting it three months late.

    This falsification of support goes to the heart of his campaign, a desperate candidate who uses erroneous information in an attempt to enhance his credentials and credibility. This unscrupulous conduct clearly shows that this is an untrustworthy candidate. This is one of a string of a cases where candidate Browning purposely and knowingly misled voters by making up an endorsement, and thus violated the law and purposely misled the voters.
    Mr. Cunningham also added, “Any entity, including political candidates are prohibited from [claiming NRA support] without written permission from the NRA Secretary who has not provided that for [your use].”

    Sincerely
    Dee Lansford Orange Park

    • I'm not sure where this person gets her information from, but all you have to do is go to the NRA website to see that Don Browning has been given an A. The campaign is getting nasty with false accusations.

      • I don't think Dee should carry. She seems a little out of touch with reality.
        NRA is a 501c3, as such they are forbidden from financing campaigns or attempting to influence legislation whatsoever. http://www.nonprofitexpert.com/lobbying.htm If you read this link you will find that NRA is in criminal violation here in this race and I believe they as well could be charged with interfering with the US electoral process. We will find out! I promise. Get ready for your dues to go up and not be tax deductible. LOL

        After they defied the Constitution with Harry Reed I think we see who they really are. If I were don I would sever all ties with them I have My local gun store owner has, any idiot knows that without the other rights reserved in the Constitution .... we don't need the 2nd.
        I am reporting to The IRS the actions of NRA, They will imediatly lose their 501c3 status I never trusted them anyway now I have proof!

  17. Ms. Lansford,

    The only "desperate candidate who uses erroneous information in an attempt to enhance his credentials and credibility" is Cliff Stearns. He is using a false claim of being vetted by the Ocala Tea Party Solutions to pretend he has anything to do with our tea party. Last night it was announced at the Tea Party Solutions meeting that the comments on his website were misleading at best. Also at the meeting, while we were inside a letter about the NRA was put on all the cars with your name on it. Cliffs employees should have come in and discussed this but obviously they like doing stuff like this in the dark. I also know for a fact that you did not happen on this information today because along with the flyers at the tea party you sent out emails with this same comment. I had one forwarded to me. Look on the NRA site. All candidates that support the 2nd amendment receive an A rating.
    http://www.nrapvf.org/ELECTIONS/State.aspx?y=2010&State=FL
    If Cliff would participate in a debate with Don Browning then maybe things like this could be discussed IN FRONT of the voters.

  18. I have checked the NRA website, and Don Browning received an A rating. Don Browning's website does not claim any endorsement by the NRA. This is an unfounded accusation by a Stearns supporter. In the next week I suspect there will be more nasty politics, so check out the facts.

    • I wonder if she was one of the Stearns supporters that infiltrated at John Cockwishe's direction the Tea Party Vetting Committee. Boy that blew up in there face! The little temper tantrum John Cockwish is not used to getting caught in the act. The Tea Party is furious, I mean Furious and afraid that that reputation will marginalize there efforts. Thank God they called a spade a spade last Monday night. I hope the video gets on U Tube... It alone would sink Stearns .... Nobody likes a liar!!!

  19. It is my fervent desire that Don Browning win the primary on the 24th. I've met Don and his family; all are down to earth, exceptionally bright, and have an aura of warmth and old-fashioned hospitality.

    Either Stearns or Don Browning will be my opponent on November 2nd. I'm not siding with Don because I have a better chance of winning against him. In fact, Stearns is so corrupt that I do not think he can be re-elected. If you can get Don Browning into the general election, FL District 06 will be a big winner. Both Don and I are totally committed to draining the polluted swamp in Washington which we commonly refer to as the U.S. Congress. And Don is much more conservative than I am. So the electorate will have a choice between two newcomers who have no political baggage.

    I believe I can beat Stearns because of his unethical conduct; but Don and I would probably just face-off on the major economic and political issues that now seem to befuddle our dwindling Democracy. We need to tweak the United States Constitution and stop corporate rule!!

    Steve Schonberg, Candidate, U.S. House, FL-06

  20. Well if the Republicans are stupid enough to elect Stearns You will have an army behind you, who will be giving up on ever taking the corrupted party back from the looters and bondage prostitutes. I say you would have a much better chance against Stearns Because if he stays I will be instantly exposing him as we did Knupp and Ergle who were both indighted. If you have anything on Stearns I would like it for my file. rburtonv@windstream.net
    Please dont go out and put a stearns sign in your yard, you would lose respect, lol
    Remeber My name I dont have any money but I can do things noone else will! Maybe I should run??

    So Tell us; where do you stand on CAFTA? and what are your views on International NGOs facilitating sustainable development at the local and state level in the US with our tax dollars?