T’was 10 years ago that I first experienced the ghost candidate.
His name was Robert Goocher, a 24-year-old Inverness auto mechanic, who put his name on the ballot to run for state House as a Democrat. It was a head-scratcher from the start.
Let me set the stage.
Jimmie T. Smith, a Republican, had been elected to the state House in 2010. Nancy Argenziano, who over a 10-year span was a Republican House member, Senator and Public Service Commissioner, had plans to run for Congress in 2012 as a Democrat. Somehow she accidentally signed up to the Independent Party, and it was too late to switch to Democrat to get into the congressional race.
So she decided to run against Smith as an Independent, which is an actual political party and not to be confused with NPA — no party affiliation. The Independents might not get a lot of play but they’re real, and were thrilled to have a candidate for Florida Legislature.
Lynn Dostal, a Homosassa school teacher, got into the race as a Democrat, even though he really supported Argenziano.
So there’s your field: Democrat Dostal, Republican Smith and Independent Argenziano.
Easy peasy, right?
Goocher got into the Democratic primary shortly before qualifying. He had no experience, no money, no post-high school education and had never voted in a Citrus County election.
Yet, a South Florida political committee was hailing him as the next great thing, pushing mail outs that, upon closer inspection, didn’t say at all what he was running for. Only that Goocher was the man we needed in Tallahassee.
Dostel, who had planned to drop out of the race to give Argenziano a clear shot to Smith, stayed in just to make sure this Goocher character didn’t get on the ballot. The conspiracy minded suggested Goocher existed only to siphon votes from Argenziano, thus ensuring Smith reelection.
It was clear that Goocher’s candidacy was a joke. He gave exactly one interview: A few sentences on the phone, then he had to do an oil change, and that was that.
He never showed up at a single event. Conducted no fund-raising (though he had a few select contributors, I talked to some of those donors and they admitted they didn’t know the guy), and didn’t spend a dime other than his filing fee.
I always like to use this Goocher-Dostel “race” as an indicator of unpredictable voting. Here you had two candidates, one very much out there campaigning and one very much not, and still the ghost candidate received 28% of the vote in the Democratic primary. (And Goocher didn’t vote either. Probably couldn’t get off work that day.)
After his primary win, Dostel bowed out and Argenziano had her one-on-one shot against Smith. So, weirdness over, right? Just a normal campaign against two seasoned politicians. What could go wrong?
Ghost of Goocher, that's what.
Argenziano accused an influential Smith supporter of recruiting a DIFFERENT guy to run as a sham Democrat but the guy declined, which supposedly opened the door for Goocher. So the accusation went.
The state attorney’s office got involved and determined that, while circumstances surrounding the Goocher candidacy were indeed strange, nothing was amiss.
More from the Goocher train: A month after the primary, Smith offered up Goocher’s dad to the governor as a possible appointee to the hospital board. When I called Smith to ask about it, this was his response:
“When did I do that? I don’t personally know him. I can’t remember specifically recommending him. A lot of stuff gets put in front of me. I guess I should have read it.”
“I guess I should have read it.” Oops.
(After that, Smith cut off all interviews with me for the duration of the campaign. Though, I must say, Smith later was a very gracious county commissioner in giving me his time.)
And, with Republican money backing him, Smith easily defeated Argenziano in the 2012 general election. Smith would serve another term after this one, then four years on the county commission. Argenziano stayed in fringe politics; she was the 2018 Reform Party's lieutenant governor candidate.
That's a lot of fallout from one fake candidate.
Folks may laugh at a Goocher ghost candidacy but it's really not funny at all. When people try to maneuver the playing field to block voters or siphon votes, that's playing the public as fools.
This walk down Memory Lane serves only as notice that we’ve got ballot qualifying next week.
You know what that means:
Mike Wright has written about Citrus County government and politics for 36 years.