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Key House Race Loses Steam
By Mark Schlueb
September 29, 2002
Six months ago, the congressional race between Ric Keller and Eddie Diaz had all the makings of a political blockbuster.
Keller was a freshman Republican incumbent who had barely won his first race.
And Diaz -- a former cop who had barely survived eight gunshots -- had a story so compelling he was courted by state leaders in both major political parties before settling on the Democrats.
Now, however, the race for a key House district in the heart of Central Florida has virtually dropped from the nation's radar screen.
"When Diaz announced, there was a lot of buzz and excitement. He's charismatic, he has a compelling personal story and he's Hispanic," said Aubrey Jewett, a University of Central Florida political scientist.
"People thought this could be a competitive race," he said. "But the bottom line is, Diaz just hasn't had any traction."
The Republican-led Florida Legislature redrew the district's boundaries, increasing its GOP majority. And Keller has raised $1.1 million, enough to blanket the district with television, radio and newspaper ads.
Diaz, meanwhile, has struggled to gain momentum. His most recent financial report -- filed a month ago -- showed little campaign money left.
Still, both candidates said this battle for District 8 -- which takes in much of Orange County and cleaves north through Lake and Marion -- is far from over.
Keller rises in politics
In 2000, Keller was a little-known Orlando attorney who had never sought political office. When Bill McCollum left the District 8 seat to run for the U.S. Senate, Keller became a dark-horse candidate in a vicious Republican primary.
With the help of a fledgling Washington-based political action committee, the Club for Growth, Keller won the primary, then went on to defeat former Orange County Chairman Linda Chapin.
The Club for Growth supports candidates who adhere to its small-government, supply-side philosophy. It favors low taxes, privatizing Social Security and school vouchers. Keller reflected those standards and earned the club's backing in 2000, in the form of $200,000 in advertising and another $200,000 in direct contributions from club members.
Keller said he had only a few key goals for his first term: drumming up more spending for mentoring programs and Pell Grants to help needy students pay for college, and cutting taxes.
"I've tried to stay narrowly focused on one or two issues," Keller said.
He was successful in his push to increase Pell Grants from $3,300 to $4,000 per year to help with tuition, books and other college expenses.
Keller also co-sponsored legislation to provide $150 million over three years to education agencies and private groups to launch mentoring programs.
Two years ago, Keller said, he opposed spending taxpayer money on pork-barrel projects. But what might be considered pork in someone else's district rarely earns that label at home.
Keller has brought money back to Central Florida, including $5 million for UCF to start a doctoral program in computer modeling and simulation. Keller claims credit for tens of millions more in contracts to local defense companies, including Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin Corp., ECC International Corp. and Veridian Inc.
He is pushing for $1.7 million to train and equip local emergency workers to find and rescue victims of disasters, and $4 million for a center that would train doctors and emergency workers nationwide to handle widespread casualties.
Violence changes Diaz's life
As Keller was starting his first term in office, Diaz hadn't even considered a political career.
But a traffic stop in February 2000 upended his future. A robbery suspect killed Diaz's backup, Officer George DeSalvia, and then shot Diaz eight times.
The incident regularly put Diaz and his struggle back from partial paralysis in the news.
It wasn't long before leaders in both the Republican and Democratic parties began to eye Diaz. As a young Hispanic man with a made-for-TV story, party leaders thought, he would be a promising candidate in an area with a growing Hispanic population.
Diaz was born in Puerto Rico, but spent much of his childhood in Florida. He enlisted in the Navy, and served as a corpsman with a Marine combat unit during the Persian Gulf War.
After leaving the military, Diaz earned a bachelor's degree in business administration from Florida State University. But his lifelong dream was to be a police officer, and he joined the Orlando department in 1997.
After the shooting, both parties asked him to run.
Diaz said he was physically unable to continue his career with the Orlando Police Department, but the idea of continuing his public service was appealing. The Democratic Party, he said, was the better fit.
"Being an officer was my dream, and it's all I ever wanted to do," Diaz said. "Since I can't be an officer anymore, this is a way I can give back to the community."
Two sides of the issues
Both candidates talk about many of the same issues: education, health care, Social Security.
Though he has offered few details of his own stand on Social Security, Diaz has criticized Keller's support for its element of partial privatization, which he said would lead to cuts in benefits.
Keller supports, in concept, a Republican plan that would provide workers with private investment accounts funded by surplus revenues rather than payroll taxes.
Keller said the government could fund those investment accounts without cutting benefits.
"I will not support any cuts in benefits whatsoever," Keller said.
If re-elected, Keller said he will fight to increase funding for reading instruction, and try to reduce the amount of paperwork that teachers of special-needs children must fill out.
Keller said he is proud of his successful push for larger Pell Grants, but they're still not large enough. The incumbent -- who helped pay his own college tuition with the grants -- said he will continue efforts to raise the grants to $5,000.
Diaz, whose wife is a high school science teacher, also said he wants to increase funding for kindergarten through 12th-grade education, with a focus on building more schools and raising teacher salaries.
He said he favors expanding health insurance to all, and criticized Keller's support of a Patient's Bill of Rights that critics say too severely restricts a patient's ability to sue HMOs. The measure stalled when the House and Senate could not reach a compromise.
Diaz also favors a "living wage," or a minimum pay scale that would keep a full-time worker above the poverty line. All Central Florida workers, he said, should be paid at least $12 an hour -- more than double the minimum wage.
"Ric Keller had his chance," Diaz said. "What has Keller done for us in the past two years? How are our lives better?"
Diaz faces uphill battle
For all the early interest in the District 8 race, political analysts no longer consider Diaz a major threat to Keller.
As of last month, Diaz had raised about $171,000 in campaign contributions, but spent nearly all of it without much direct contact with voters.
Keller had collected $1.1 million when he filed his last report, and still had about $800,000 on hand. He's launched television ads that Diaz probably won't be able to afford to counter.
About 17 percent of the district's residents are Hispanic, however, a potential advantage for Diaz.
But Keller said he has courted his Hispanic constituents from the start: "I started reaching out to Hispanics before it was cool to do it." He has conducted town hall meetings geared toward the Hispanic community, and has two Spanish-speaking aides on his staff.
Diaz, however, said his campaign continues to move forward.
"Every hand I shake is a potential vote," Diaz said.
Meet the candidates
Occupation: Former police officer
Education/military experience: Bachelor of Science in business administration from Florida State University, U.S. Navy veteran of Persian Gulf War.
Civic involvement: On board of directors for Easter Seals Central Florida, Meals on Wheels and Covenant House; vice president of Concerns of Police Survivors of Central Florida.
Family: Married to Nancy Diaz
Last book read: Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate: 1974 - 1999 by Bob Woodward
How long he has lived in Florida: 15 years
Education: Bachelor of Science degree from East Tennessee State University, law degree from Vanderbilt
Civic involvement: Advisory board member of House of Hope, a home for abused teens; former chairman of the board of directors for Orlando/Orange County COMPACT mentoring program
Family: wife, Cathy; son, Nick, 6; daughter, Christy, 3
Last book read: Slander by Ann Coulter
How long he has lived in Florida: 37 years