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.