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Politics / Issues

Open House Seat Creates Polk County Battle

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With powerful House budget chief Seth McKeel leaving office this fall because of term limits, the vacancy has created a hotly contested Republican primary in a GOP-leaning Polk County district.

Former non-profit executive Colleen Burton and attorney John Hugh Shannon are battling for the nomination in a race that has included attacks accusing Burton of being "just too liberal" and reports about Shannon having longstanding tax problems.

Burton has received the support of McKeel and the other members of the all-Republican Polk County legislative delegation, while Shannon is trying to out-flank her on the right. The winner of the Aug. 26 primary will take on Democrat Ricky Shirah and American Independent Party candidate Franklin Shoemaker in the November general election. The House District 40 seat includes Lakeland and parts of surrounding Polk County.

The candidates share positions on at least some issues, such as opposing the federal Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare.

"I'll use all of my skill and ability to fight Obamacare and Common Core," Shannon, a former Marine officer who has practiced law in Lakeland since 1981, vowed in one ad.

Burton, former executive director of the public-private partnership Polk Vision, said her focus is on a robust economy, especially "reducing the regulations that make it difficult for businesses to hire." She also said she supports efforts to limit lawsuits, an issue commonly described in Tallahassee as tort reform.

"Florida has the 41st worst legal climate in the country," she said.

But the race has been roiled, in part, by charges that Burton is a liberal who supports tax hikes and a "stealth amnesty agenda" for undocumented immigrants. The basis for the charges is her former role at Polk Vision, which has called for integrating immigrants into the community via opportunities to earn GEDs, study English, acquire job skills and gain legal status, including driver’s licenses.

Both Burton and Polk Vision have repudiated the charges, which don't come from Shannon, but from "Families for Lower Taxes," a group connected to Shannon campaign consultant, Anthony Pedicini.

Families for Lower Taxes put up a website, www.liberalburton.com, which also claims Burton "even brags about flipping county commissioners to support massive tax increases." It cites a Polk Vision initiative to convince Polk officeholders of the need to invest in infrastructure.

"If it's true, it's fair," Pedicini said.

But the attacks prompted state Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, to write a rebuttal in The Ledger newspaper.

"When I saw the negative attack ads against Colleen Burton, it brought back memories of my recent campaign when my opponent's consultant tried to bill me as the 'Liberal Creature from Tallahassee,' " she wrote. "It would have been comical, except it was deliberately trying to deceive the voters and it was done, not from my opponent, but from a shadowy third-party group."

Shannon, meanwhile, has spoken against negative campaigning and fired his former campaign treasurer over an attack ad.

"I don’t like negative campaigning of any kind," he said. "People have accused me of it, but it’s not true."

Burton said she was "shocked" by the attacks and that the tone of the campaign has prompted people to tell her they would never consider a bid for office themselves.

"It discourages good people from running," she said.

As to reports by The Ledger about his tax problems, Shannon --- who filed campaign documents showing a net worth of $4,355,653 --- said he has paid or is paying every dime in taxes.

"You can be asset-rich and cash-poor," he said. "One of the things they look at is the value of my office. But you’ve got to understand, the value of my office is me. … I do have value, but sometimes you just can’t turn that value into cash."

Burton, who got into the race earlier than Shannon, had raised more money as of Aug. 1, according to finance reports. She had raised a total of $150,870 and had $50,102 cash on hand. Shannon had raised $104,060 and had $19,877 cash on hand.

If elected, Shannon said he would draw on his career representing people in his law practice. "I'm going to do what the people of the 40th district want me to do," he said. "I think all too often that people get elected and it's their agenda, not the people's agenda. And it needs to be the people's agenda."

Burton's campaign website, meanwhile, touts her commitment to conservative issues such as "protecting life and our 2nd Amendment rights. … In the legislature, Colleen will fight Obamacare and the proposed expansion of Medicaid, which Florida cannot afford."

"Colleen did a great job with Polk Vision and had been a great leader for Republican causes," said Sen. Denise Grimsley, a Sebring Republican who represents part of Polk County. "She is a conservative woman who has the core values that I appreciate."