by Mitch Perry
Judithanne Scourfield McLauchlan has accomplished a lot in her 45 years on the planet, working at the highest levels of public service and national Democratic Party politics — interning at the White House, managing statewide presidential campaigns, getting considerable face time as a political pundit, even serving as a Fulbright Scholar in Moldova. But one thing she’s never done is run for political office.
In November McLauchlan, an associate professor of political science at USFSP for the past 10 and a half years, confirmed that she would run for the Democratic nomination for the Senate District 22 seat currently held by Republican Jeff Brandes. The fundraising has begun, though she concedes that she will be thoroughly outspent by her opponent, a multimillionaire who benefited from the sale of his family’s lumber company in 2006.
McLaughlan said she had an epiphany while spending time in Washington in October during the government shutdown.
“If not now, when? If not me, who?” she says half-earnestly and half-ironically about her decision, which she said was more productive than continuing to whine to her husband Ramsay (a former Pinellas County Democratic Party chairman) while watching the nightly news.
Born and raised just outside of Philadelphia, Judithanne Scourfield graduated summa cum laude from Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey in 1990. She went on to get her Masters at Rutgers University in 1994.
While at Rutgers she also spent considerable time in the nation’s capital, serving in the Office of Curator at the Supreme Court in 1992 and conducting legal research for the confirmation of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Ted Kennedy’s Senate Judiciary Committee in 1993.
Winning a Presidential Intern Scholarship Award in 1995, she moved to the Clinton White House, where she worked for the Domestic Policy Council and First Lady’s Office. She went on to join the Clinton/Gore re-election effort in 1996 and spent time in the administration during his second term, including a stint as director of the White House comment line at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998.
When asked for her personal thoughts on the matter some 15 years later, McLaughlan says she didn’t initially believe the reports that the president was involved with a 22-year-old White House intern, in part because she knew first-hand about interns’ lack of access. She calls the former president “magnetic” and thought that Lewinsky might have misinterpreted his legitimate interest in helping people.
But one day while walking on the beach it dawned on her that, because the government had been shut down when the purported liaison began, Lewinsky probably was telling the truth. She confesses to feeling disappointment when the president admitted as much, but immediately adds that his transgression pales in comparison to the mistruths uttered by George W. Bush.
“I’m much more comfortable with that than lying about whether there were weapons of mass destruction sending people to die for,” she says.
After leaving the White House in 1999, she tried to help Al Gore get elected, working in New Hampshire, Maine, West Virginia and ultimately in Oregon. She then resumed her teaching career at Rutgers while working on her PhD.
It was while working on behalf of Jeanne Shaheen’s successful Senate run in New Hampshire in 2002 that she learned about the job at USF-St. Petersburg.
Darryl Paulson was the acting head of the College of Arts & Sciences at the university when McLaughlan was hired. He speaks fondly of her, reserving his only criticism for her tenure as head of the Civics Engagement program that she was instrumental in creating in 2006. He says she did a “fine job” in creating the position, but thought she stayed on too long. “As a junior faculty, the focus needs to be on doing the research necessary for promotion to a full professor. Tasks such as this take too much time away from establishing a research agenda.”
Among the most interesting of the classes she’s taught in her decade-plus tenure is “The Road to the White House,” which in 2004 and 2008 saw her travel with groups of 20 students to intern for the campaigns in the nation’s first-of-the-year presidential primaries. In 2012 she opted to keep her students back in Florida, where they could intern for any of the GOP candidates running in the Sunshine State’s critical primary election that year. (Students were free to sign up with any candidate. About half opted to get involved with Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.)
For McLaughlan, the “Road to the White House” class is the epitome of what she’s always been about: getting people engaged in the political process.
“I love working with students and I want to do what I can at the state Legislature to provide the kind of environment where they can stay here and raise a family here and get a good job here,” she says, concerned about what she calls a “terrible brain drain” that causes the best and the brightest to go elsewhere after college graduation.
And this leads back into why she’s running for office.
“I think there’s things that frankly Jeff Brandes and the Legislature are doing that are fundamentally at odds with that vision.”
Claiming he’s outside the mainstream, she says Brandes was the sole vote in the 40-member Senate to oppose the alternative to Medicaid expansion that Joe Negron (R-Stuart) crafted last year. Negron’s bill would have accepted federal funds to help approximatly a million Floridians buy health insurance.
She’s also critical of Brandes’ resistance to Greenlight Pinellas, the sales tax increase slated for the ballot in Pinellas this fall that would begin funding for a light-rail system. “Instead of having a program that would help move people around Tampa Bay, he’s worked on fantasy ideas like driverless cars,” McLaughlan says of his sponsorship of the state’s autonomous-vehicle bill.
When asked for a response, the St. Petersburg-based state Senator refused to take the bait, saying he’s completely focused on the upcoming legislative session and specifically a proposal to address the region’s dramatic flood insurance increases due to the Biggert-Waters Act. “There will be a season talking about opponents and all those other things. Now is not that season.”
For casual observers it might seem like Mission: Impossible for McLaughlan to oust Brandes, but that perception is thinly sourced. Senate District 22 is split between Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties and is considered perhaps the sole swing Senate seat in the state this year. It was held by Democrat Charlie Justice as recently as 2010, when he gave it up to run for Congress.
Justice for one believes that McLaughlan has an excellent shot at recapturing the seat for the Democrats. And as someone who was outspent by at least a 3:1 margin by Republican Kim Berfield, he says an overwhelming money advantage means less in a district race than in a statewide contest. “There’s only so many pieces of mail you can buy,” says Justice.
For her part McLaughlan says a race in a competitive Senate district is ideally what all legislative races should be like in Florida, though virtually none are.
“The candidates have to go out there and talk to voters and explain what they want to do, and may the best candidate win.”
On that point she and Jeff Brandes probably agree.