By Steve Steiner
Lori Edwards, Dennis Ross and Randy Wilkinson were the three guest speakers at Monday's Tiger Bay Club luncheon, held at Peace River Country Club. Vying for the District 12 seat in the House of Representatives being vacated by Adam Putnam, who is running for State Agriculture Commissioner, the three participated in the standard question-and-answer forum Tiger Bay conducts each month.
Prior to the start of the day's forum, the event opened on a somber note. Asked to give the benediction, Polk County Commission Chairman Bob English lost his composure when he asked everyone to pray for those in the military. Apologizing, he explained it had been earlier learned that morning a county employee's grandson had stepped on a land mine in Afghanistan. His legs had been blown off in the explosion, said English. Low-keyed murmurs of sadness were heard upon learning of that tragedy.
While most of the give-and-take during the question-and-answer period focused on the issues, a discordant note was struck toward the end, when Lori Edwards turned vitriolic. Responding to the question put to each candidate as to what differentiated one from the other, Edwards launched into an attack aimed primarily at Dennis Ross, although she did not spare Randy Wilkinson.
She accused Ross of waging a negative campaign. Ross, she said, was more involved in mudslinging and distorting the truth than in telling voters what he would do for them.
In the next breath, she lumped Ross and Wilkinson together.
"If you just can't get enough of the partisan bickering, you have two excellent choices," she said. "You have Randy Wilkinson or Dennis Ross."
That she chose to "go negative," while castigating her opponents -- primarily Ross -- for having done so during the campaign, was not lost on the audience.
Ross sat impassive as Edwards carried on, while Wilkinson simply smiled. When it was his turn to answer the same question, Ross chose not to respond to Edwards' comment. He declared he was the only candidate who had put into detail his issues and he directed those in attendance to visit his website.
Wilkinson cited his record of achievement while serving first on the Polk County Board of Education, and his two terms as county commissioner.
"I've passed more initiatives than any other commissioner," said Wilkinson.
As is the format, each candidate introduced himself or herself and gave an opening statement why they were running and deserved to be congressman or congresswoman.
Edwards cited the time she had served in the Florida Legislature, and said it was time to elect a candidate who will fight for Florida's middle class. Ross spoke of his concern for the future of his and others' children and grandchildren. He added he is the only candidate who has been in the private sector and had created jobs. When it was Wilkinson's turn, he rhetorically asked whether those in the audience considered themselves Democrats, Republicans or independents. He then assailed both political parties for "failed policies."
In response to all questions asked, Edwards and Ross were able to contain their answers in the time allotted per question. Wilkinson, however, rambled at times and sometimes ran over several seconds longer when the call to end comment had rung.
There were questions of greater and lesser importance. Of the latter, it was asked what each candidate would like to leave as a legacy.
"Ultimately, the quality of life we have here (in Polk County)," said Edwards. She said Polk County has a unique complexion of quality of life, and that she would work to bring a new transportation system to the county, help small business thrive and encourage alternative energy.
Ross focused on two aspects.
"I've always voted my principles," he said. Doing so has sometimes cost him, but he willingly accepted the consequences. He also spoke of future generations and said he hoped "my children have greater opportunities than I had."
Wilkinson's expressed hope for his legacy was that he kept costs in control while county commissioner. Several times he stressed how he was able to trim the county budget. He was particularly proud how the county budget had been trimmed from $1.8 billion to $1.3 billion. Wilkinson said that although then-county manager Mike Herr had told Wilkinson it couldn't be done, at the end, Herr had congratulated Wilkinson.
All three called for a reduction on foreign oil. Ross said the best way to achieve that was not to rely upon the government, but through market innovation. He called for the development of biofuels made from non-edible crops.
"Change the way, the methods," he said. "Give choices, not mandates."
Wilkinson came out in support of solar energy and biofuels. He took it a step further when he linked the reliance upon foreign oil to Islamic terrorism. The Saudis, he said, have poured more than $60 million into mosques that sponsor hate.
Edwards supported the same approaches as her opponents, and added a twist. One approach, she said, that never gets mentioned is because it is not "sexy."
"Pay attention to what we use," she said. "Retrofit."
She also weighed in on offshore drilling.
"It's time to stop drilling in the Gulf," she said. "I will not be happy until BP pays every cent for damage it caused."
In one of the more light-hearted moments, one question elicited the same one-word answer from each candidate: No. The question was if any of them supported the proposed transfer of Guantanamo terror detainees.
"I think we just made Tiger Bay history," joked S.L. Frisbie, moderator, and former owner of The Polk County Democrat.
A question presented was which caucus would each candidate align with if elected, and would they vote to keep Nancy Pelosi as speaker. Ross said he would align with the Republicans, and he would not vote for Pelosi but for John Boehner as speaker. Edwards said she would caucus for the Democrats, but didn't know about Pelosi; that she would need to know who the choices were. Wilkinson said he would caucus for what is right, and that both parties have good things about them. He added another thought in his answer.
"Your vote for me is going to be a trendsetting vote," he said. That is, he said, because he is running as the Tea Party candidate.
When it came to summarize their candidacy, Wilkinson called upon the audience to reclaim its heritage.
"We have got to be exceptional again," he said.
Ross said the country was at an important juncture.
"This is a crossroad," he said. "Government is not to guarantee your success, but to guarantee your opportunity for success."
Edwards closed with an abrupt turn from her scathing remarks one question earlier, in which she had attacked her opponents. The most important thing everyone should do, she said, to change the tone of government was to vote.
"Please make your voice heard," she said.