In 2009, Bernard “Bernie” Fensterwald retired to Florida. But he is no ordinary retiree.
As a lawyer in northern Virginia, he worked alongside his father, an intriguing, somewhat mysterious attorney whose clients included the man who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr., and one of the five Watergate burglars.
Education: Vanderbilt University, bachelor’s degree; Tulane University School of Law, J.D.; Virginia Tech, master’s in education
Occupation: Retired; owner of storage business
Political Experience: None
As a businessman, he is the director and vice president of a self-storage company with locations across the Washington, D.C., area and in Daytona Beach. In 2013, he opened a women’s boutique in Rehoboth Beach, Del.
Now this retiree, a man with a net worth of nearly $20 million and annual income of $290,000, is running for a state legislative job that pays $29,697 a year. And his opponent is a well-financed young incumbent who is considered one of the Republican Party’s most promising up-and-comers.
Fensterwald, 65, acknowledged his foray into local politics might seem unusual. But it’s the kind of unconventional move his late father would have embraced.
“My father had a lot of chutzpah,” Fensterwald said. “I knew he would have been pleased if I had run and disappointed if I didn’t.”
He said his concern for the environment propelled him into the race against Rep. Chris Sprowls. A vote to approve fracking in Florida, a controversial oil and gas extraction technique that environmentalists deplore, was the tipping point.
“When he (Sprowls) voted for fracking, I said there’s something wrong with this picture,” said Fensterwald, a Dunedin resident since 2014. “And none of the Democrats were running anybody against him.”
Fensterwald has focused his campaign on environmental issues. He opposes offshore drilling, embraces solar energy and warns that climate change is already impacting the world.
“I think climate change is very real, and we can see the effects of it now,” he said. “We’ve had a major cause in it, and we need to do something about it or else your children are going to have a hell of a world to live in. And I don’t mean that in a good way.”
Fensterwald’s maverick style should appeal to the district’s voters, said his campaign field director, Kofi Hunt. His presence in the race will encourage ordinary people to step up and make their voices heard.
“The importance of Bernie in this race is that he shows a different side of values,” Hunt said.
During a candidate forum Oct. 5 at the St. Petersburg College Seminole campus, Fensterwald deplored the special interest money that dominates Florida politics and criticized charter schools, which get taxpayer money but are exempt from many of the regulations that govern traditional public schools.
The use of public funding for charter schools puts regular public schools at a disadvantage, he said.
“Society’s done very well with public schools,” he said. “We need to make the public schools stronger so that every kid goes to a great public school in their neighborhood, rather than having to ship them off to some charter school someplace else.”
Fensterwald comes to the education debate with sturdy academic credentials. He got a bachelor’s in history from Vanderbilt and law degree from Tulane and worked in law and business for nearly three decades before earning a master’s in education at Virginia Tech in 2002. Then he became a public school counselor in Virginia for two years.
“I’d been a lawyer for 25 years and wanted to do something different,” Fensterwald said.
The race against Sprowls, a strong contender for speaker of the Florida House in six years, has not been easy.
Sprowls has raised $343,465, much of it from a who’s who of special interests. Fensterwald has raised $11,735 and loaned his campaign another $15,000.
He has gotten considerable support from individual Democrats in the district, Fensterwald said, but both the county and state Democratic organizations have not been so supportive – even to the point of being negative on occasion.
Essentially, he said, he was told that he was in over his head trying to run against a political powerhouse like Sprowls.
Paul Ford, the District 65 chairman for the Pinellas Democratic Party, acknowledged that Fensterwald is a long shot but said the party is helping him.
“Bernie is a newcomer to Florida and has little name recognition running against an incumbent,” Ford said in an email. “Pinellas County Democrats are extremely pleased that Bernie has taken on this challenge and are working to get the vote out, but the odds are against him.”
Fensterwald said he went into the campaign with eyes wide open.
“I was involved in Democratic politics in Virginia for 27 years as a volunteer,” he said. “I understood exactly what was going on and I’d analyzed the situation. They weren’t telling me something I didn’t already know.”
Asked if there is any politician or public figure that he draws from in his campaign, Fensterwald pointed to his name on a campaign flyer.
It is stylized in the same font that U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont used in his presidential campaign. Fensterwald’s website is titled “Bernie 2.0.”
“In order to really identify with the young voters who are Democrats, you really had to set a focus more on what Sen. Sanders did,” Fensterwald said. “A lot of his ideas were very good.”
Grace Cunningham is a student journalist attending the University of South Florida St. Petersburg’s Journalism and Mass Communications Department. This story was produced as part of the Media and the Elections class this semester, under the leadership of instructor Robert Hooker.