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Prospect of Frankel As House Speaker Might Rally GOP

BY George Bennett
by George Bennett on 10/21/00.

State Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, has the name recognition, money and party affiliation to make her the prohibitive favorite in heavily Democratic state House District 85 against first-time Republican candidate Cheryl Carpenter.

But Frankel is not an ordinary incumbent in an ordinary race.

The liberal lawmaker is a partisan lightning rod who's in line to be Democratic leader in the House next year - the kind of figure who just might inspire Florida's Republican Party or conservative groups to get involved in the race.

When GOP partisans wanted to inspire Republican House members back in May for the coming campaign season, they invoked the prospect of Frankel as House speaker.

"While Republicans will be running on their record, they can campaign on the fact that the first vote that their Democratic opponents will cast is for Lois Frankel for House speaker," Gus Corbella, the staff director of the GOP House Majority Office, said at the time.

As the Democrats' speaker-designate, Frankel has spent the last 1 1/2 years crisscrossing the state to recruit candidates and raise money for uphill Democratic efforts to reverse the GOP's 75-45 advantage in the Florida House. In recent weeks, though, Frankel has been spending most of her time in District 85, which includes parts of West Palm Beach, suburban Lake Worth, Greenacres, Royal Palm Beach and The Acreage.

Frankel describes the district, which is 46.6 percent Democratic and 33.1 percent Republican, as a "socially progressive and very tolerant" place that favors increased education spending, consumer and environmental protections, and legislation allowing patients to sue their HMOs.

Frankel has won her last two elections in District 85 by better than 2-to-1 margins. She got 54.9 percent in the 1994 general election after knocking off the Democratic incumbent - who was also her former legislative aide - in a bitter primary. Frankel also was a state representative from 1986 to 1992 before leaving to make an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Congress.

Republicans say Carpenter, a public relations consultant active in the county GOP, is a far more polished and electable candidate than the party has fielded against Frankel in the past. And Carpenter has been working hard, knocking on doors to try to turn out Republicans and woo crossover Democrats and the district's 20.5 percent of voters who are not registered with either major party.

Carpenter says the district isn't as liberal as Frankel.

"I think (Frankel) represents a different value structure than what's in the area. I see the district as being more moderate," Carpenter says.

The candidates have plenty of other differences.

Frankel, 52, is a trial lawyer who ranked next-to-lowest in the Associated Industries of Florida pro-business scorecard for the past legislative session. Carpenter, 37, is a small business owner with strong ties to Palm Beach County's Economic Council and other business groups.

Frankel opposed Gov. Jeb Bush's "A-plus" education plan, which grades school performance based on standardized test scores and offers vouchers to students in failing schools. Frankel instead favored a $ 674 million plan to boost teacher pay, hire more teachers, and build and renovate more schools to relieve crowding.

Carpenter says the standardized testing in Bush's plan "has some flaws," but she's generally supportive of the plan's accountability measures and its private-school tuition assistance for parents. As for Frankel's approach, Carpenter says, "You can't just keep pouring billions of dollars into the educational system without seeing something in return."

Frankel opposed a Republican measure that capped punitive damages awards in lawsuits, saying the tort reform bill stripped away consumer protections against businesses. Carpenter says the legislation was needed to curb "frivolous" and "outrageous" lawsuits.

Frankel describes herself as "ardently pro-choice" on abortion. Carpenter supports a 24-hour waiting period for anyone getting an abortion, a parental-notification requirement for minors and a ban on so-called "partial-birth" abortions.

Frankel's campaign raised $ 110,175 and spent $ 65,484 through Oct. 13. Through Sept. 28, Carpenter had raised $ 32,950 and spent $ 8,782.

Carpenter's financial disadvantage could be lessened if outside groups spend money on TV spots or mailings in the race.

The state GOP would love to defeat Frankel - or at least keep her pinned down in her district during the final weeks of the campaign. But Frank Terraferma, the director of House campaigns for the state GOP, said the party hasn't decided yet whether to spend significant money on Carpenter's behalf.

Also cagey on tactics was Associated Industries of Florida President Jon Shebel. AIF's Alliance for Florida's Economy cannot endorse candidates, but it often gets involved in campaigns with issues-related ads.

"You never know," Shebel said when asked if the Frankel-Carpenter race was on the group's radar screen. "There's nobody more anti-business than Lois Frankel."

Members of Citizens for a Sound Economy, a conservative group that supports tort reform, are also "very interested in that race," said Florida CSE Director Slade O'Brien, who contributed $ 500 as an individual to Carpenter. His group cannot endorse candidates, but it helped swing a special state House primary last year with TV ads and mailings attacking a frontrunner's opposition to tort reform.