June 28, 2012
TALLAHASSEE – One of the closest watched political contests this summer is a fight over a newly drawn minority Florida Senate seat that encompasses much of the political turf of term-limited Orlando Sen. Gary Siplin.
Democratic voters will have the option of keeping it in the family.
Siplin's wife, Victoria Siplin, has been running to replace her husband for more than a year, and will square off in the Aug. 14 primary against Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, for the newly drawn District 12 seat – a match likely to pit name-recognition against the advantages of incumbency. It has already produced some fireworks.
The seat has a 2-to-1 Democratic voter advantage over Republicans, with a voting-age population that is 36.9 percent African-American, and 19.9 percent Hispanic. Although Republican Fritz Jackson Seide has filed, the race is effectively over after the primary.
Siplin, 38, lists herself as the president and treasurer of a mysterious company called Ushindi Enterprises Inc., but her only declared income is $10,000 from her husband's law firm, where she works as a paralegal. She and Gary Siplin have four children, two from his previous marriage, and live in Orlando.
Thompson, 63, lives in Windermere, is married to a senior judge on the Fifth District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach, and has three children and four grandchildren. She also has a long career of public-sector employment.
She was a teacher in Orange County Public Schools, and worked for 24 years as director of equal opportunity and assistant to the president at Valencia Community College. While there, she founded the College Reach Out Program that aided low-income and disadvantaged students. She served as Gov. Bob Graham's appointment to the Florida Commission on Human Relations.
Thompson became the first African-American woman to represent Orange County in the House when she was elected in 2006. In the Legislature, she rose to the rank of Minority Leader Pro Tem, the No. 2 spot within the House Democratic caucus.
Both women got their start in politics working for ground-breaking African-American legislators.
Siplin got her introduction to politics working for the first black state senator since Reconstruction, former Sen. Arnett E. Girardeau of Jacksonville, and the first female black senator, then-state Sen. Carrie Meek of Miami, who went on to Congress.
Thompson came to Tallahassee in 1970 while her husband, Senior Judge Emerson R. Thompson, Jr., was in law school at Florida State University, and worked as a secretary for Rep. Gwendolyn Sawyer Cherry of Jacksonville, the first African-American women elected to the House.
Senate District 12 stretches from Apopka to Edgewood, reaching east into downtown Orlando and west to Windermere. Since it encompasses about 49 percent of Gary Siplin's old district, the Siplin name carries a built-in advantage.
That likely gives Victoria Siplin higher name recognition with potential voters. But that potentially cuts both ways, says Orange County Democratic Party Chairman Scott Randolph, an Orlando House member leaving office this year.
Gary Siplin has been a constant source of notoriety since taking office.
In 2006, he was convicted for allowing his state-paid aides work on his 2004 campaign on state time, though that conviction was overturned on appeal.
Siplin won another appellate reversal in February 2011, when the 5th District Court of Appeal overturned his conviction on charges that he "corruptly" abused his office in 2006 when he invoked his status as state senator and bullied an Orange County deputy to gain access to a parking space at the Florida Citrus Bowl.
Most recently, Siplin agreed in May to pay a $3,000 fine to the Florida Elections Commission over missing information on campaign-finance reports and accepting an excessive contribution from a phosphate-industry group in 2008.
The Florida Senate picked up the $109,000 tab for Siplin's four-year legal battle. And among African-American voters, "Siplin still has a high favorability," Randolph said.
Party polling, though, suggests the Democratic primary turnout will be around 57 percent black, 9 percent Hispanic, and 33 percent white voters. And many white voters – who mostly live around downtown Orlando – have an overwhelmingly negative view of Siplin, Randolph said.
"His name has the exact opposite effect in the non-minority portions of the district," said Randolph, who is remaining officially neutral in the race. "It's going to be a very, very tight race."
But one thing Siplin has done successfully is get re-elected, including narrowly beating back a Republican Party of Florida-funded Hispanic candidate, Belinda Ortiz, in 2008.
The race has already turned testy. Before a crowd of more than 400 people at aBethune-CookmanAlumni Association event earlier in June, Thompson called the Siplins "sell-outs" – while Gary and Victoria Siplin were still in the room.
The criticism relates to Victoria Siplin's company, Ushindi Enterprises, which campaign-finance records show was paid $7,500 in 2010 to "consult" for the Republican-funded Protect Your Vote electioneering group headed by former Secretary of State Kurt Browning that attempted to defeat the Fair Districts anti-gerrymandering amendments at that year's ballot. Siplin had fought the redistricting reform, and Thompson said the payment was evidence that the Siplins were willing to "sell out" Democrats when opportunities arose.
"We have a tea party candidate in Mrs. Siplin disguised as a Democrat," Thompson said. "We do not need mercenaries in our community who will sell us out for 30 pieces of silver."
Neither Victoria nor Gary Siplin returned phone calls or email messages for this story.
In a primary where their names will appear at the top of the Democratic ballot, Siplin has a name-recognition advantage over Thompson.
Thompson, as an experienced legislator and Democratic Party officer, has drawn more institutional support. She has been endorsed by the FloridaAFL-CIO, the Florida Education Association, the Orange County teachers association, the West Orange Political Alliance and the Florida Alliance of Retired Individuals. Her old House district is contained within the new Senate district, although she hasn't faced opposition since winning it in 2006 – which means she hasn't had to spend a lot of money to keep her name-identification high.
Siplin has raised $76,183, while Thompson has raised $54,882 and another $3,500 from gaming interests through an electioneering organization called Common Sense in Florida. Thompson registered to raise money for the group in May, and its first quarterly report since then will be due in mid-July.
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