- The Washington Times - Monday, June 12, 2000

Few political newcomers can boast of having the direct support of top party leaders. But a retired naval officer named Jennifer Carroll has emerged as the shining hope of Republicans who hope to win a Florida House seat away from incumbent Democrat Rep. Corrine Brown.

Sensing the importance of the race in Florida's 3rd Congressional District, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Whip Tom DeLay of Texas and Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma hosted a fund-raising breakfast for Mrs. Carroll in Washington last week. And Arizona Sen. John McCain will host a fund-raiser for her later this month.

"Normally, we wouldn't get involved in a race in this district," Mr. DeLay said. "But, with the weakness of the incumbent and the incredible strength of Jennifer Carroll's candidacy, it came on our radar screen as a competitive seat.

"In an election year like this one, every possible win, every possible open seat, we will get involved in, and we will fight for," Mr. DeLay said.

Mrs. Carroll led her opponent by a 2-to-1 ratio in fund raising during the April filing period, raising $84,000 with $174,000 cash available.

That's compared with $45,000 raised by Miss Brown, who has been plagued by scandal and is under investigation by the House ethics committee for accepting gifts in exchange for congressional favors. She has $87,000 available.

Republican leaders, who control the House by a slim majority, are lining up to help Mrs. Carroll raise even more money to defeat Miss Brown.

"Every seat counts, and they see they can steal this from the Democrats," Mrs. Carroll said.

Black voters make up only 40 percent of the 3rd District, which encompasses Jacksonville and Orlando. Both the incumbent and her challenger are black.

The conservative Black America's Political Action Committee is supporting Mrs. Carroll and has urged its members to contribute to her campaign. Its fund raising resulted in an additional $180,000, bringing her war chest to $350,000 cash on hand.

Mr. Watts, the lone black Republican member of Congress, is holding fund-raisers for Mrs. Carroll in Washington and in Florida.

"He would like for one day to be the chairman of the House Republican Black Caucus, and it not just be a committee of one," a spokesman for Mr. Watts said.

A spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee said Mrs. Carroll's campaign was one of the top targeted races in the country.

"She is the strongest candidate we ever had against Corrine Brown," the spokesman said.

Mrs. Carroll is campaigning on the issues of character, education, and higher military pay, while Miss Brown is certain to boast of her abilities in bringing federal dollars to her district.

"There is a clear distinction between the incumbent and myself, and I need to make sure voters see a clear difference between what they have and what they could have," Mrs. Carroll said.

Miss Brown declined to be interviewed for this series. Her spokesman said the congresswoman had not planned to begin actively campaigning until after the Democratic Party convention in August.

"We don't start raising money until later in the year but have an incredible grass-roots effort of people knocking on doors," said spokesman Gretchen Hitchner.

The ethics committee is investigating Miss Brown's relationship with African businessman Foutanga Dit Babani Sissoko, who pleaded guilty in 1997 to bribing a U.S. Customs Service agent.

Miss Brown lobbied on behalf of Mr. Sissoko, who later gave the congresswoman's daughter a $50,000 automobile.

However, Democrats say that Miss Brown is well liked despite the controversy, and that she has been successful in her eight years as their representative bringing federal dollars home to her district.

Miss Brown is a Jacksonville native and serves on the House Transportation and Veterans Affairs Committees both important committees for her district.

In February, she testified in support of a $13 million request to construct a fourth runway and instrument landing system at the Orlando International Airport. The funding was approved by the House last month.

"Our tourism industry is very dependent on the success of our airport," Miss Brown said in a written statement.

"Our airport has surpassed 30 million passengers a year, and this new runway will add needed relief to air traffic in and out of Florida," she said.

Despite the congresswoman's support for federal funding of local projects, Mrs. Carroll and other critics say she is distracted by the investigation and neglecting her constituency.

"Jennifer is interested in paying attention to the constituents and not miring the district in controversy, as we've seen with the incumbent," said Alvin Williams, executive director of Black America's PAC.

"Jennifer brings something to the district that is woefully lacking, and that's credibility with the voters," he said.

Despite Mrs. Carroll's fund-raising success and strong support from key Republicans, Democrats say that the seat is safe, and that they are not worried.

"She has a very firm grip," one Democratic campaign consultant said of Miss Brown.

"We have the opportunity to pick up two to five seats, and the GOP is doing everything they can to distract attention from that sobering reality," the consultant said.

Republicans had hoped to defeat Miss Brown in 1998, when the charges against her first surfaced. Money also flowed into the war chest of her campaign opponent then, Bill Randall, a black minister and businessman. However, his campaign was derailed by newspaper reports that he failed to pay nearly $30,000 in taxes and pleaded no contest to a bad-check charge in 1988.

Miss Brown won a fourth term handily, with 59 percent of the vote.

One Florida Republican Party official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that despite the controversies and congressional investigation, Miss Brown will be a tough candidate to beat.

"She would win even if she were indicted tomorrow," the party official said.

Supporters for Mrs. Carroll also admit it will be a chore to persuade traditional Democrats to cross party lines for a Republican.

"They think right, but they vote left," Mr. Williams said.

A Jacksonville Democratic activist, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, agreed that black voters support Republican values, especially on issues relating to church and family, but said they are loyal to the Democratic Party.

"Money doesn't mean a thing, it's a Democratic district, and African Americans just don't vote Republican that's such a reach for them," the activist said.

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