Taking A Shot At 44

BROOKSVILLE – Joe Puglia says he sees some fundamental similarities between serving in the state legislature and flying a jumbo jet.

Both jobs require thinking ahead, said Puglia, a 41-year-old Brooksville resident who flew commercial airliners for 10 years.

“You don’t want to be in the back of the plane with bad weather ahead in Tampa and me in the cockpit without a plan,” Puglia said.

State lawmakers, he contends, have failed to plan for what Puglia calls “the perfect storm” of high insurance rates, high gas prices and a tumultuous economy.

Now Puglia wants to see what he can do to, as he puts it, “get the plane out of the dive.”

He’s challenging state Rep. Rob Schenck for the District 44 seat. The district includes all of Hernando and parts of Pasco and Sumter counties.

Puglia is a former New York City Police officer and is now the owner of Big Red Carting, a solid waste company in Brooksville. He says his diverse background and acute awareness of the plight of everyday Floridians help qualify him as a candidate.

He was motivated to run by state and local headlines and by the stories of his customers who can’t pay their bills, and by what he said has been an inadequate response by the state Legislature.

Puglia called Amendment 1 a “knee-jerk reaction” that will hurt the state more than it helped taxpayers. Locally, Sheriff Richard Nugent is dealing with a million dollar shortfall and school Superintendent Wayne Alexander with a $3.3 million deficit, said Puglia, who is married and has three children ages 10, 12 and 17. All three attend public schools in the county.

“Would I have rather paid another $100 in my property taxes and not have these gentlemen face these issues? Absolutely,” he said.

Puglia said he would work hard to attract industry to Hernando and would use the Hernando County airport and the nearby rail line, which he called “a tremendous asset,” as an attractor. He said he’s already approached UPS about expanding operations here.

He opposes expanded drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, contending that oil companies should be exploring some 8 million acres already open to them.

And he vows to take a tough stance against insurance companies who have set up separate corporations in Florida so their national operations can’t be tapped to pay claims.

“If you’re going to do business in this state, it needs to be under one umbrella,” he said.

He expressed frustration that the Legislature broke its promise to hold education funding harmless. He said the state’s A-Plus plan and the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test need to be overhauled, and that politicians should seek input from teachers, principals and superintendents to help craft a new way to gauge student progress.

A native of Queens, N.Y., Puglia’s parents owned a photography studio. He attended some college classes in Long Island before deciding on a police career. He worked as a patrol officer and then as helicopter pilot in the department before joining United Airlines in 1995.

He flew domestic and international routes, and spent two years as a flight manager overseeing the hiring of new pilots. He moved to Hernando County in 1999, and left United in 2005.

In 2003, he founded Big Red Carting. The company provides waste hauling for commercial and residential customers.

He said he has the diplomatic dexterity to cross party lines when it’s best for constituents. “You couldn’t be a captain at a major airline and survive without good people skills,” he said.

Schenck served as a Hernando County commissioner before his election to the House in 2006. Puglia didn’t have harsh criticism for the incumbent.

“He’s a person who I’m sure who has put his best foot forward,” he said, “but sometimes you have to put a different driver in the seat.”

For his part, Schenck said he worked with his fellow lawmakers to cut the budget and provide tax relief to Florida residents.

“I think it’s important to keep people in office that are going to protect the wallets of taxpayers, especially in these sorts of economic times,” Schenck said.

He pointed to several local projects included in this year’s budget despite lean times, such as $14 million for expansion and renovations to the Hernando County Health Department.

“As my tenure in the Legislature continues, there will be more of those successes,” he said.

There is no other Democrat or Republican in the race, so Puglia and Schenck are headed straight to the general election.

Schenck won by just 2 percent in 2006. But Puglia will face an extra challenge with the presence of a third party candidate.

Sarah Roman, 21, of New Port Richey is running on the Green Party ticket. The party bases its platform on environmentally-friendly policy and traditionally pulls some Democratic voters.

Roman did not return calls seeking comment.

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