By KEITH LAING
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, May 12, 2010………. With talk of lawmakers coming back to the Capitol for a special session on drilling against the backdrop of an election year, the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has quickly become a political issue.
But the first test of the political impact of the spill could come not in a statewide race, but in a state House primary in the shadow of the Capitol.
Former Leon County Democratic Party Chairman Rick Minor said last fall he was challenging Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda in part because of her votes in favor of legislation that would have allowed oil drilling as close to three miles off the Florida shore. Minor has long tried to make drilling a central issue in the primary campaign, but may gain more traction now that the state is focused on the thousands of gallons of oil that are spilling into the Gulf daily.
Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, has tried to explain the vote as a part of a deal that would have resulted in more renewable energy in the state, an explanation she repeated Wednesday at a press conference at the Capitol calling on Gov. Charlie Crist to bring lawmakers quickly back to town to ban drilling and approve renewable energy legislation.
“We need renewables,” she said as Minor supporters held signs nearby that with slogans like “Pretty Slick, Michelle.” “We need to do everything we can do get off oil. Florida is blessed with the climate and national resources to do that.”
Sensing an opportunity to imperil the freshman Democrat’s first re-election campaign, Minor’s campaign harangued Vasilinda all day Wednesday, dubbing her “Big Oil’s #1 Democrat” in press releases and charging that she had accepted more campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry than any other Democrat in the Legislature.
“It’s clear that voters of District 9 are looking for a new representative and Rick Minor is offering them good, sound judgment,” Minor’s campaign spokesman Jonathan Webber said in a statement. “Had Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda gotten her way, a tragedy such as the one off the Louisiana coast could have occurred a mere 3 miles from Florida’s shores.”
Vasilinda sought to deflect criticism of the drilling votes Wednesday with a lengthy press conference featuring renewable energy producers and middle school students. But she was clearly agitated by protests from Minor supporters, saying she had a lengthy record of being in favor of renewable energy.
“I never supported drilling, never promoted drilling and never defended drilling,” she said. “I traded my vote very specifically to get renewables on to (the drilling) bill. You saw this session … that when the Republicans lock down a vote, nothing is going to stop them. I worked for Jimmy Carter when he ran for president. He was the guy who put solar panels on the White House. I actually cried when Ronald Reagan got elected and (the solar panels) came off.”
Vasilinda said she had no regrets about the drilling vote, though she acknowledged it could cause her problems in the primary with Minor.
“Did I make myself vulnerable? Absolutely,” she said. “But I thought it was important because we needed a bridge to renewables.”
Minor’s campaign was not satisfied with Vasilinda’s explanation, E-mailing supporters statements she made during floor debates on the drilling proposal in 2009.
“As long as you’re going to the pumps today and tomorrow to fill up your cars, as long as you’re going to the pumps today and next week and whenever it is to fill up your boats with gasoline, then we need to make sure that as much of that oil …comes from our shores,” Minor’s campaign said Vasilinda said on April 27, 2009.
Minor said Vasilinda had accepted $7,200 in campaign contributions from oil related donors and that he had refused donations from oil companies.
Vasilinda said she did not know if she had raised more than any other Democrat from oil companies or how much she received from the industry. She added that she would give money she knew came from oil companies back, but acknowledged that it might be too late to win over the Minor supporters who appeared at a her press conference Wednesday.
“There isn’t going to be any convincing (protestors that she is not pro-drilling) because those are my opponent’s supporters,” she said when reporters asked if the race was being consumed by drilling. “My words stand for themselves. It was not a vote for drilling; it was a vote to do what I needed to do to get money for solar rebate and Florida Forever onto that bill. My heart is pure. I know what I did, I know why I did it and I know my campaign was all about independence from foreign oil.”
However, just as quickly, Vasilinda chastised Minor for making the spill in the Gulf a campaign issue.
“This is a terrible time to use catastrophe as a political football,” she said.
She added that if the drilling issue determines the winner of the Aug. 24 primary, she will be OK with that.
“If I get unelected, that’s fine and dandy,” she said. “I’m happy to be a part of the conversation because we need renewable energy.”