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Van Zant Family An Issue In North Florida House Race

Outgoing state Rep. Charles Van Zant can't run for re-election this year because of term limits, but the socially conservative incumbent's shadow looms over the race to replace him.

That's in large part because one of the candidates hoping to take his seat is his wife, Katherine Van Zant. Both Van Zants have come under scrutiny, with opponents attacking the husband's legislative record and suggesting the wife would simply be more of the same.

"I think term limits should mean something, and I think term limits mean that we have a new fresh voice that runs ... and that you don't run a family member," said Leslie Dougher, a former chairwoman of the Republican Party of Florida and one of the other two GOP candidates in House District 19, which includes part of Clay County and all of Bradford, Putnam and Union counties.

The candidates mostly agree about the major issues facing the district --- the need for economic development for the largely rural area topping the list. So one of the points of genuine friction that has emerged is what, exactly, a representative should do, and whether the current Van Zant has been doing it.

The race has also attracted plenty of money. Katherine Van Zant has raised more than $160,000 for her effort. Palatka Republican Bobby Payne has brought in more than $82,000 and loaned his campaign $10,000. Dougher, of Green Cove Springs, had raised nearly $67,000 as of Aug. 5.

Critics of Charles Van Zant argue that the incumbent focused too much on social issues and not enough on the region's economic problems.

"I'm a pro-lifer," Payne said. "But standing on the House floor and talking about abortion year after year after year, trying to get an abortion bill passed when people can't feed themselves --- feeding themselves and having some level of economic priority trumps that issue to me."

And beyond Charles, Katherine is hardly the only member of the Van Zant clan to be involved in the family business. His son, Charlie Van Zant, is superintendent of schools in Clay County. Payne, who worked at Seminole Electric Cooperative for more than 30 years, raises the prospect of almost dynastic succession in the seat

"I think she would be an extension of her husband," Payne said. "I think that we would be in poor shape if we have Charles Van Zant, Katherine Van Zant and (the younger Van Zant) waiting in the wings to be a state representative. If we had 24 years of that, we'd be in very difficult situations."

It's the kind of comment that Katherine Van Zant said grates on her. Van Zant, 55, is an engineer who came into the profession at a time when women weren't always encouraged to enter the field. And while she doesn't use the word "sexism," it's clear that she catches a whiff of it when opponents try to tie her too closely to Charles Van Zant's legislative career.

"It's disconcerting for me to come to this point in life and have people saying, both of my opponents, 'Well she's just going to reflect whatever her husband says. She's just going to be just like her husband.' After I've spent my life working, going through the paces of demonstrating who I am and how competent I am, and then to come to this point and have what, really, I feel like takes us as women back 30 or 40 years with statements like that," she said.

Instead, Van Zant focuses on the positive of her family situation. She defended her husband's record on getting state funding for rural areas and said there would be no on-the-job training if she were elected.

"I don't come in not knowing what this is all about," she said. "I know how bills are made. I know how bills are blocked. I know how the process works."

Van Zant's husband also recently paid to temporarily clear up a dispute with the Bradford County property appraiser over whether he was entitled to a homestead exemption on their Keystone Heights residence. The Van Zants said they live at the location but have been remodeling it and are appealing the decision.

Dougher, 52, said her time as Republican Party chairwoman, when she oversaw the successful effort to support Gov. Rick Scott's re-election, has helped her build relationships across the state. The Realtor also touted her time as the government affairs chairwoman at the Clay County Chamber of Commerce, saying it gave her an idea of how to bring business to the area.

Like Payne, she particularly highlighted the plight of areas like Putnam County.

"My goal in the first few years is to bring up Putnam County off of the bottom of every list. ... I want them to start having job growth. I want them to start having more money come into their education system and watch them grow," she said.

Payne, 58, has the backing of the Florida Chamber of Commerce. He said increasing economic development in the area will boost revenue to help other priorities, such as education, and emphasized that for all his differences with the Van Zants, he is also committed to traditional "Christian and family values."

And he fashions himself as an outsider, neither the spouse of a current representative nor the former head of one of the state's political parties.

"I think people are looking for a fresh face, a new face," he said.

The winner of the Aug. 30 primary will face Crescent City Democrat Hubert "Joe" Snodgrass and a pair of write-in candidates in the general election.

The News Service of Florida is a wire service to which WUFT News subscribes.