Mud Already Being Flung in Kosmas Race

Posted June 10, 2009 at 6:21pm

After Winter Park City Commissioner Karen Diebel (R) filed paperwork Tuesday to challenge freshman Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D-Fla.), it didn’t take long before accusations of mental instability and gutter politicking began being lobbed between Democrats and Republicans.

The intensity of the opening salvos from both sides are a clear sign that the Orlando-area 24th district could become one of the hottest, and perhaps nastiest, races of the 2010 cycle.

Diebel, who was elected to her city commissioner post in 2007, has been touted by national GOP officials as the party’s best hope for returning the 24th district seat to their column next year.

Although Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won the district with 51 percent in the 2008 presidential race, Kosmas cruised to a 16-point victory the same year over then-Rep. Tom Feeney (R), who was plagued by his ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Knocking off Kosmas won’t be an easy task. The former four-term state legislator raised more than $2 million for her 2008 campaign and already had more than $230,000 in cash on hand as of March 31. Meanwhile, Diebel may not have the GOP primary field to herself.

But Republicans say they are impressed with the $60,000 Diebel raised for her city commissioner race, and Diebel said Tuesday she has a $2 million goal for the 2010 campaign.

And GOP strategists are high on Diebel, who also works as an executive director for Verizon, in part because they believe her business and technology background will play well along the Space Coast and in suburban Orlando.

In an interview Tuesday, Diebel said her biggest concerns are reining in out-of-control spending by the Democratic majority and protecting the district’s many high-tech jobs, particularly in the health care and aerospace industries.

Diebel’s environmental work — she was named environmentalist of the year in 2005 by the Rotary Club of Orlando — is also expected to play well in the battleground district.

But Diebel also has a compelling personal story to tell.

Diebel moved to the district after she married her husband, Donald, who had joined his father in a private medical practice. But Donald — who was his wife’s earliest supporter when it came to her environmental crusades — was killed in a tragic car accident seven years ago this week.

The accident occurred while the couple and their three sons were traveling on the Florida Turnpike on their way to visit her parents. After coming across an overturned pickup truck that had crashed in the median in the bad weather, Donald pulled over and got out to aid the newlywed couple that was trapped inside. But as Donald and a volunteer firefighter were working to free the two victims, a tractor-trailer plowed into the two men, killing them both.

In memory of her husband, Karen Diebel founded the N. Donald Diebel Jr. M.D. Good Samaritan Fund in 2004, and Republicans have praised her for turning to a career of public service after such a tragedy.

But, in the wake of her Federal Election Commission filing on Tuesday, some Democrats immediately began to question whether Diebel is fit for public office.

It didn’t take long on Tuesday before a 2007 article from the Orlando Sentinel began circulating that discussed “out of character— comments and actions by Diebel during the fifth anniversary of her husband’s death.

According to the story, Diebel called the police to report that one of her sons had found a snake in her pool’s skimmer and thought it might be connected to a threatening phone call she had received the previous day. Diebel told police she thought her family’s safety was threatened because of a scheduled city commission vote on commuter rail.

At a subsequent commission hearing, the story states, Diebel’s outburst over an issue involving the burying of power lines in the city had fellow city commissioners noting that she had recently been “under a lot of stress.—

Florida Democratic Party spokesman Eric Jotkoff referred to those incidents in a release on Tuesday in response to Diebel’s filings.

“Karen Diebel’s unstable and erratic behavior raises questions about her qualifications for Congress,— Jotkoff said. “Central Floridians are looking for more than failed policies and old ideas; they expect steady, common-sense leadership during these difficult economic times, which is exactly why they elected Suzanne Kosmas.—

The Kosmas camp, meanwhile, steered clear of Diebel on Tuesday, choosing instead to focus on the freshman Congresswoman’s work over the past six months.

“Congresswoman Kosmas is continuing to focus on representing the priorities of her constituents and finding bipartisan, common-sense solutions to create jobs and get our economy back on track,— spokesman Marc Goldberg said.

But Florida Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer — who openly considered challenging Kosmas before deciding against the race last month — blamed Kosmas on Wednesday for the state Democratic Party’s comments.

“Desperate politicians hit below the belt, and that’s what Kosmas and her henchmen did Tuesday,— Greer said. “This kind of gutter politics is beyond the pale, and Suzanne Kosmas should be ashamed of herself. Perhaps instead of focusing her energy on vicious personal attacks, Kosmas should be working harder to prevent her fellow Democrats in Congress from slashing NASA funding and killing local jobs.—

One Florida Republican strategist said Jotkoff’s comments were an example of a “sad stereotype— when it comes to Republican women running for office.

“I think this is symptomatic of what in past races Democrats have tried to do to Republican women,— the strategist said. “It’s either attacking their mental stability or their intelligence.—

For her part, Diebel declined to respond directly to Jotkoff’s statement.

“I’m sure there’s going to be plenty of time to respond to all those politically motivated personal attacks, and unfortunately that’s part of politics,— she said. “But today is about laying out why I’m running for Congress.—