WASHINGTON — “Grandma” Carol Castagnero’s name has been on a ballot more times than she can remember. And she’s never won.
The 69-year-old retired teacher and Lakeland, Fla., resident has run for Florida governor, state senator and school board member.
“One, two, three,” she begins to count during a telephone interview. “I think it’s been about 10 times. No, eight times. No, at least six times — if you count back when I ran for school board in Pennsylvania.”
Whatever the actual number, Democrat Castagnero can now add one more race to her resume, as a candidate for Florida’s 5th Congressional District seat now held by Republican Ginny Brown-Waite of Brooksville.
This time, Castagnero says she’s got a feeling she might win.
Castagnero is among more than 20 people who met Friday’s deadline to qualify as candidates for the Tampa Bay area’s five congressional seats, according to the state Division of Elections.They did so by either collecting thousands of signatures from residents in the district, or plopping down a qualifying fee.
It’s no surprise that all five of the area’s U.S. House incumbents have qualified again, including the longest-serving Republican in the House, C.W. Bill Young of Indian Shores. He’ll be seeking his 20th term.
Like Young, Brown-Waite and fellow GOP Reps. Adam Putnam of Bartow and Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor, went the signature-collection route to get on the ballot.
Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa instead paid the $9,912 fee needed to qualify.
Others who’ll be running for these congressional seats include those with experience as local public office-holders, third-party challengers and first-time candidates for public office with visions of David slaying Goliath.
Then, there are perennial candidates like Castagnero and Democrat H. David Werder of Spring Hill.
Like Castagnero, Werder is running for Brown-Waite’s seat. He has already campaigned several times for Congress, including as a write-in candidate.
You may not know the name H. David Werder, but, he says, you may know him by another name — “The Flag Pole Sitter.”
It all goes back to the early 1980s, Werder explains, when he sat atop a flagpole at an appliance center in Clearwater to protest the price of gasoline – which at the time was about 99 cents a gallon. By the time his protest had ended, Werder had been atop the flagpole 439 days, 11 hours, and six minutes, he said. From that point on, people recognized him as “The Flag Pole Sitter.”
Castagnero paid the fee to get her name on this year’s ballot, the same as Castor, the result she says of her late start in collecting signatures. Werder got on by collecting the required 5,536 valid signatures to qualify, something he is especially proud of.
Either way, political experts say Castagnero and Werder are part of a tradition in American politics.
“In every congressional district of about 7,000 people, there’s bound to be a handful of people that will run and run again for office, even though it’s very unlikely that they will ever get elected,” said David Wasserman, a U.S. House expert for The Cook Political Report, a non-partisan newsletter.
But Wasserman said these perennial candidates, for the most part, should not be dismissed as gadflies, self-aggrandizers, or a waste of voters’ attention.
Instead, he said they can play an important role in congressional races, especially where it is difficult to convince others to run against incumbents with so many campaign advantages, and who tend to be re-elected at rate of higher than 90 percent of the time.
Often appealingly over-optimistic and driven by certain issues or causes that they want to bring attention to, Wasserman said “they provide an opportunity for the voters to hear about those issues.”
Describing himself as a disabled truck driver, Werder says one of his pet issues is the needs of the elderly and poor, and that he’s only making one campaign promise.
“If elected, I’ll give up one half of my (congressional) salary to pay for prescription drugs for needy seniors and indigents,” he said.
Castagnero describes her biggest issues as the education, safety and health needs of children, and veterans’ concerns – and that she is thrilled to get to talk during a campaign to individuals and groups on these matters.
“Maybe I shouldn’t keep on running,” she suddenly reflects at one point in the interview. But then, sometimes, there are signs that people are listening.
After all, she actually got 5.3 percent of the Democratic Party’s statewide primary vote – 45,161 votes in all – as a candidate for governor in 2006, finishing third out of five hopefuls.
And as Castagnero sees tells it, she would have done better if she had not been shut out of the debates and the media had not treated her like she didn’t exist.
John Russell, a Dade City Democrat and health-care professional who was the party’s nominee in 2006, is also running again, having paid the qualifying fee. Brown-Waite got 59.9 percent of the vote two years ago to his 40.1 percent.
Russell does not seem very worried about Castagnero or Werder.
“I’m a good bet to be in the general election,” Russell said.
Yet another candidate, Republican Jim King, a retired professor from Land O’Lakes, says he hopes to defeat Brown-Waite in the primary. He had run for the seat in 2000 when it was still held by Brown-Waite’s predecessor, Democrat Karen Thurman, losing in the GOP primary.
“I wouldn’t have put down the (qualifying fee) if I wasn’t serious,” he said.
As for Brown-Waite, she says she’s not taking anything for granted in this year’s race.
“I run hard every election, regardless of the perceived strength of my opponents,” Brown-Waite said in a statement released by her office Friday.
“I look forward to a positive-issue campaign that addresses the concerns of 5th District voters,” she said.
Reporter Billy House can be reached a email@example.com or at 1 (202) 662-7673.