New-to-Southwest Florida voters Vicki and Steven Pierson want to make the right decision in the special election for the District 19 Congressional seat left vacant by the resignation of Trey Radel.
So they drove up from Estero Saturday to attend one of a handful of forums being held countywide by the The SWFL Citizens Alliance
"To hear the candidates, to be informed," Vicki Pierson said.
"We're new to Florida, new to Florida politics," Steven Pierson added. "We're newly registered voters and want to make an informed decision."
Three of the four candidates in the Republican Primary to be held April 22 -Curt Clawson, Michael Dreikorn and Paige Kreegel - took part, along with Libertarian Ray Netherwood, who is running in the General Election to be held June 24.
The candidates got to share their views on a scattering of issues of national import, including their position on whether the U.S. should put "boots on the ground" in Crimea (no); whether the Affordable Health Care Act should be repealed (yes); the state of the economy (recovery will come from the private sector and not through new or increased taxes); their positions on Common Core (repeal it); the Second Amendment (uphold it); the National Security Agency (it's gone too far) and the medical and recreational use of marijuana, one question where some differing views were shared.
The Alliance hosted the moderated forum, held at the First Baptist Church on Coronado Parkway, to give voters the chance to "get to know the heart" of the candidates, as well as their views on the issues, and even ask a few questions.
Alliance member Rick Stevens shared with the dozens attending a couple of stories about American heroism and then summed up the organization's intent on organizing the events throughout Lee and Collier counties.
"So that we can choose people that are worthy of this heritage," he said. "That's why we hold these forums, for real people."
All qualified candidates were invited, organizers said.
Republican Lizbeth Benacquisto, state senator for District 30; Democrat April Freeman; and write-in Timothy J. Rossano did not attend.
While positions on the issues were close on both the Republican and Libertarian sides of the dais, candidates worked to differentiate themselves on background and experience.
They also stressed character, an issue of particular interest, perhaps, to this race as the special election is being held because, Radel, a Republican, resigned in disgrace following an arrest for cocaine possession in Washington, D.C.
Curt Clawson, who defined himself as a "constitutional conservative," cited his CEO background and his written economic growth plan as well as his lack of previous political office which, he says, makes him "the outsider for Congress."
Dreikorn cited his military background, education - he has an Ed.D. - and business and entrepreneurial acumen as well as the fact that he has stayed out of the fray of divisive campaigning and so stands "above petty, stereotypical" political behavior.
Former state rep. Paige Kreegel cited his eight years of legislative experience, his intimate knowledge of the U.S. health care system as a physician with 30-plus years in the industry and "55 years of keeping out of trouble," a remark that brought some laughter from the crowd. Kreegel also reminded attendees that he was an original co-sponsor of Florida's Stand Your Ground law and that he has long been an advocate for Southwest Florida as when he swam against the party tide on behalf of Lee Memorial Health System.
Netherwood, who said Republicans and Libertarians share many of the same positions, cited his military career and administrative health care background, which includes a masters degree in Public Administration. He also stressed his ability to work with both parties, if elected.
Charlotte Hofer, who also drove up from Estero to attend the forum, said she was glad she made the trip.
"I thought it was very good and very informative," she said. "We'll be at the next forum. You can read a lot of things but it's always good to hear them in person."