FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — The former CEO of an aluminum wheel company won a Republican primary Tuesday in a special election for the seat of a congressman who resigned in January after being arrested for buying cocaine.
Curt Clawson, 54, defeated Lizbeth Benacquisto, Michael Dreikorn and Paige Kreegel to capture the solidly Republican district. With 96 percent of the precincts counted, Clawson had 38 percent of the vote, Benacquisto had 26 percent, Kreegel had 25 percent and Dreikorn had 11 percent.
On Tuesday night, about 130 people gathered at a Hyatt hotel in Bonita Springs for Clawson’s victory party. Clawson, a former Purdue college basketball player, had an arcade basketball game set up at his party, and former Boilermaker coach Gene Keady spoke to the crowd. Clawson, who used a basketball as a logo during his campaign, was the former senior captain of Keady’s 1984 team, his first Big Ten Conference championship.
“I got into this race because I felt like we needed more outsiders in Congress,” Clawson said in remarks that were also posted on Twitter. “The career politicians in Washington aren’t getting the job done … and I don’t see a whole lot of people in Washington with the experience as a CEO in making the tough decisions to save our country.”
Clawson vowed to challenge President Barack Obama on the nation’s new health care law.
“But first, I am going to challenge you on the basketball court. It’s time to man up and accept the three-point challenge,” Clawson said. “My house or yours?”
Clawson will face Democrat April Freeman and Libertarian Ray Netherwood in the June 24 general election. The winner will fill the seat left vacant by Trey Radel, a former TV anchorman who pleaded guilty in November to cocaine possession.
Whoever wins the June election will have to begin campaigning again almost immediately if they wish to retain the seat; the special election was called to complete Radel’s term, which ends this year. All contenders for another term after that must compete in another primary in August and then a general election in November.
Voters in the district — which includes most of Lee County and part of Collier County — were exposed to a barrage of attack television ads during the campaign. Outside groups spent $2.1 million on the race, mostly on those ads, which led some voters to say they were just as disappointed in the negative campaign as they were with Radel.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Clawson has raised $2.8 million. Benacquisto has raised about $980,000, while Kreegel has raised $236,000 and Dreikorn, $17,000.
Clawson’s opponents hammered him on his work record and on his ties to a convicted sex offender, but voters weren’t swayed by the details.
The Naples Daily News wrote about Clawson’s background as CEO for the company Hayes Lemmerz. A 33-year-old worker for an aluminum plant owned by Hayes Lemmerz died after an explosion. The paper found that the company, which was being run at the time by Clawson, had been cited for safety problems by Indiana state regulators. The company also laid off workers and shut down seven U.S. plants, the paper reported.
Local news media have reported that Clawson granted a man who pleaded guilty to four counts of attempted aggravated sexual abuse on a child a 30-day power of attorney to handle the mortgage for a home Clawson was purchasing in Utah. Clawson’s campaign said Clawson didn’t know the man was a registered sex offender or that he had spent time in jail.
Lenny Curry, the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, congratulated Clawson on his win Tuesday evening.
In a statement, Curry pointed out that registered Republicans make up approximately 45 percent of the registered voters in the district, with Democrats accounting for 27 percent. In the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney defeated Barack Obama in the district, obtaining 61 percent of the vote compared to Obama’s 39 percent.
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