Republican Bill Proctor was born in 1933, in the depth of the Great Depression. Democrat Doug Courtney was born in the middle of the prosperous Eisenhower years. Watching them debate for the Florida House seat Proctor has held for the last two terms, it’s as if both were born yesterday, politically speaking. They differ on many core issues and agree on a few others, but they speak as if the sum total of Florida history is whatever happened in the last couple of sessions of the Legislature, at the Legislature.
Perspective is neither’s strength. Nor is clarity. Proctor speaks in ideological generalities divorced from everyday realities and infatuated with the word no: no new taxes, no health care reform, no limits on the Legislature’s power to redistrict as it always has, no teacher unions, no teacher tenure, no insurance regulation, and so on. Courtney is good at disagreeing with Proctor, but, incredibly for a self-styled inventor, incredibly short on ideas on what to do next and how to do it. It’s a different version of the word no.
Twenty-two people showed up at the Hammock Community Center Tuesday evening to hear the two men debate over a narrower range of questions than they faced in a televised debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters in St. Augustine this week. That debate focused on broad legislative issues. And Proctor began the debate with rudeness: while Courtney was addressing the first question, Proctor took a call on his cell phone, briefly telling the caller he’d call back and snapping the phone shut. Courtney threw him a glance and kept talking.
The local debate, sponsored by the Hammock Conservation Coalition and moderated by the coalition’s vice president, Abigail Romaine, addressed some of those issues but also questions more focused on local matters, such as flooding in Marineland Acres, the Hammock’s continuing fear of annexation by Palm Coast and concerns about desalination—costly, energy-hungry and environmentally suspect—becoming part of the local water mix.
Proctor and Courtney weren’t much help in addressing any of those questions. They differed on none of them. Proctor said he’d be happy to introduce a bill that might help Marineland if the county and the city can’t fix the problem, but, he added, “I want a signed statement in blood that when that bill passes, you’re all going to be delighted with it.” No word on the bill’s content or who would pay for the fix, and with what money. Both candidates agreed that desalination must be part of the long-term mix of water solutions. And both flattered their audience with lofty words against involuntary annexation, and loftier words about supporting efforts to prevent it. Neither mentioned that state law is written to overwhelmingly favor cities against unincorporated areas in annexation proceedings.
They even agreed on banning oil drilling offshore, although not for the same reason. “Oil is going to be the downfall of the United States,” Courtney said, citing the need to diversify toward alternatives and citing Florida’s $65 billion tourism industry as reason enough to decline $2 billion in oil royalties from off-shore drilling. Proctor would allow some drilling far off shore, but opposes it nearer Florida’s shores in the Gulf because he doesn’t want oil rigs interfering with the Pentagon’s use of that area for its own military drills. (The Pentagon is ahead of both: the military, The Times reported this week, “is pushing aggressively to develop, test and deploy renewable energy to decrease its need to transport fossil fuels.”)
Proctor wanted to ensure that he wasn’t perceived as anti-drilling. Before the spill, all the polls we ran said drill baby drill,” he said. That tune changed after the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf, but “not dramatically,” he said.
Romaine prefaced the encounter with a briefing on proposed constitutional amendments 5 and 6. The two amendments would limit the influence of political gerrymandering when the Legislature redistricts legislative and congressional districts every 10 years, as it will in 2011. Proctor is opposed to both amendments. The U.S. Supreme Court has four criteria for redistricting, he said. That’s good enough for him. “The Republicans gained control of the majority in the House under districts drawn by a Democratic legislature,” he said, “so it’s not impossible for another party to gain control simply because another party redistricted the state.”
Courtney supports the two amendments for a different reason: Tallahassee has notoriously used Flagler County as a second-class district to be appended to others in politically motivated boundary-drawing. The result: Flagler hasn’t had its own representative in Tallahassee for 34 years. Redistricting more objectively might help. “It’s about time FC kept its identity,” Courtney said.
Courtney ran against Proctor two years ago. He got just 40 percent of the vote. Four years ago, Barbara Revels ran against Proctor and lost. Revels is now a county commissioner. The seat was held by Democrat Doug Wiles for eight years before he was term-limited. Courtney ran for office two other times: for the Flagler County Commission in 2000 (against Pat McGuire) and for state chairman of the Democratic Party in 2004 (against Scott Maddox). He lost both times. He now runs his own company, ExecData Inc., an innovative medical-information technology venture. He has no employees and no capital yet. Proctor is still chancellor of Flagler College.
After redistricting, the discussion Monday evening moved to health care and Attorney General Bill McCollum’s lawsuit against federal health care reform. Proctor supports it: he was a chief sponsor of a proposed constitutional amendment that would have nullified reform in Florida. The state Supreme Court bumped the proposal off the ballot, calling it misleading. Proctor was also misleading in the debate: he railed against reform because, he said, it’s putting the country on a path to a single-payer insurance system, which he opposes. Asked, after the debate, where he got his health insurance coverage from, Proctor said: Medicare, a single-payer insurance system.
Courtney favors reform, but—in an illustrative display of his weakness as a candidate too eager to pander rather than state his positions—he went into verbal contortions over McCollum’s lawsuit, supporting the attorney general’s right to sue and declaring himself with no opinion as to whether there should or shouldn’t be a single-payer system. Instead, he deferred to more generalities: “A number of people in the state of Florida would love to have a single payer insurance.” Only then did he speak about the “moral obligation” to provide insurance for those who lack it, and to look for ways to keep the state budget from going bust over health costs—again, without explaining how.
The two men also differed over state trust funds. Proctor sees no problem in raiding funds when necessary, to balance the state budget. Courtney sounded more Republican than Proctor when he said that instead of raiding funds, the state should cut spending. “If you don’t have money for the new car you don’t buy the new car. That’s just the way it is,” Courtney said.
In their League of Women Voters debate, the two men took on education reform, property insurance and Medicaid, among other topics they did not have time to address Monday evening. Proctor is a supporter of Senate Bill 6—which Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed—which would essentially de-claw teachers’ unions and tie standardized tests to merit pay. Courtney opposes the measure, which is likely to return to the Legislature next year. To stem Medicaid’s costs, Courtney speaks of better information technology. “That will never bring in enough to care for the elderly and young,” Proctor says. “Managed care will be the answer. I’d much rather have a company earn a profit than for us to lose 10 to 20 percent in fraud. We can’t reduce costs much, but we can restrain them.”
Proctor is not taking his race for granted: by appearing with Courtney even in small forums such as the Hammock Conservation Coalition, he recognizes that an anti-incumbency mood might hurt him, too. And he has little money to spend. Courtney raised all of $8,559. He had $2,000 left at the end of September. Last weekend he said he had no money left.
Proctor faced Alan Keslo in the primary, raising $94,705—and spending it all. He won that primary with 71 percent of the vote.