LAKE MARY, Fla. — Community and business leaders in affluent Seminole County talked about the promise of jobs and economic development from the new 61-mile commuter rail through Orlando. They praised the man who pushed hard for the $1.3 billion project and many others: Republican Rep. John Mica of Florida.
"It puts us on the map," Frank Martz, city manager from Altamonte Springs, told some 300 local movers and shakers gathered at a lunch sponsored by the Orlando Business Journal.
A few feet away, Mica quietly rattled off a list of roads, trails and highways he helped ensure during his 20 years in Congress, including the past year and a half as the powerful chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He boasted about using his seniority to help his constituents.
"I'm not embarrassed about anything I've done" the 69-year-old Mica said firmly.
He should be, suggests a rival, first-term Republican Rep. Sandy Adams, a former deputy sheriff and state lawmaker whose tea party-juiced campaign propelled her to Washington in 2010. A proud member of the hard-charging, 87-member GOP freshmen class, Adams argues that the big-time spending of longtime lawmakers like Mica contributed to the nation's skyrocketing debt and this year's estimated $1.2 trillion budget deficit.
In a recent fundraising appeal, she referred to Mica without naming him as "the personification of all that went wrong with our Republican majority."
"I believe he may have went there (Washington) with the best intentions, but over the years, based on some of his actions, he has become part of the problem, no longer part of the solution," Adams, 55, said in a recent interview.
This is the 2012 House version of GOP fratricide, a mean, bare-knuckle fight between two Republican lawmakers who ended up in the same central Florida district because of the census-driven decennial redrawing of state political maps.
Adams said Mica promised he wouldn't run against her in the newly reconfigured 7th Congressional District; he insists there was never a deal. Both carry district maps and readily show the color-coded territory, claiming that large chunks of geography already belonged to them.
This is more than personal; it's political.
It is a clash of visions about the role of the federal government and the work of Congress that will go a long way toward defining the Republican Party. For decades, some of the most conservative Republicans steered federal dollars to their home districts as a boon for local economies. Enter the 2010 tea party class, horrified by the nation's trillions of dollars in debt and demanding an end to the excessive spending in a broken Washington.
"It's one of those contests for the heart and soul of the Republican Party," said Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, a Democrat.
The same internal fight is playing out in southern Louisiana where four-term Rep. Charles Boustany is likely to face first-term Rep. Jeff Landry. The two already are trading charges about conservative purity and budget votes.
In Arizona, a race is taking shape between two GOP freshmen – Ben Quayle and David Schweikert. Illinois settled one bitter GOP primary in March when first-term Rep. Adam Kinzinger knocked off 10-term Rep. Donald Manzullo.
Democrats also have their share of intraparty House contests after redistricting, but the battle between Mica and Adams reveals an ideological divide within the Republican ranks.
A day after business officials praised the commuter rail system, known as Sun Rail, GOP conservatives elsewhere in the new district cast it as wasteful spending, most of which is yet to occur. Workers broke ground on the project in January.
Standing before about 50 people at a Winter Park recreation center, Adams clicked through a slide show of charts and graphs on government debt. She was widely praised for her many listening sessions and heartily applauded when she said she had asked for Attorney General Eric Holder's resignation.
Kelli McNair-Lee, 48, an Orlando school teacher, told Adams that the race against Mica would be a down and dirty fight and that "you got to be tough."
As Adams spoke, a crossword puzzle circulated through the audience. The title was "John Mica: Puzzling to Conservatives."
Thirteen across asked, "Since Mica was elected, the national debt has risen 12 (blank) dollars." The answer: Trillion. Fifteen across asked for "Mica's myopic monorail to nowhere." The answer: SunRail.
Louisiana's Landry insists that a likely matchup with Boustany would not be a conservative vs. conservative contest.
"I think the record clearly shows that I wouldn't be up against a conservative Republican," the 41-year-old says in a thick Cajun accent. "When you score Charles' record against mine, I don't believe that it shows that he's a conservative Republican."
Landry, who represents the southeast 3rd Congressional District, cites his scores with the American Conservative Union, the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, saying his grades in the 90s easily top Boustany's 60s.
"That's an `F' back where I went to school," he said in an interview.
But the true test was last summer's vote on the budget deal between President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans to slash $1.2 trillion from the deficit over 10 years. Some conservative Republicans argued that was insufficient. Landry voted against it while Boustany, along with most of the GOP leadership, voted for it.
Backing the Wall Street bailout in 2008 tripped up conservatives in House and Senate races in 2010. This year's fault line is the vote for the budget deal that raised the nation's borrowing authority.
Boustany, who has represented the 7th Congressional District encompassing Lake Charles and Lafayette, describes himself as a fiscal and social conservative and a strong proponent of the House Republican budget, which makes deep spending cuts.
He defends his vote last year on the deficit-cutting package.
"No conservative would ever put the full faith and credit of the United States on the line," said Boustany, 56. "We took an oath of office to defend and protect the country against all enemies foreign and domestic. So our first order of business is to never, ever roll the dice or put ... the United States in a dire position. It would have actually made the debt situation worse."
Republicans in central Florida are struggling with the prospect of having to choose between Mica and Adams in the Aug. 14 primary. David Mealor, the mayor of Lake Mary, praises Mica for his leadership and work to reduce the noise from a local airport. "He's too valuable to us," said Mealor, who wishes both Mica and Adams could serve. Adams gets high marks from the GOP for knocking off Democratic Rep. Suzanne Kosmas in 2010.
"A lot of people have said it's like trying to choose between your two children," Adams said.
The winner is likely to hold the seat in the Republican-leaning district.
Mica has $1.23 million cash on hand. His wife of nearly 40 years, Pat, says she's ready to walk the district, as she did in 2002 when he defeated a self-financed Democratic lawyer.
He also gets high marks from Democrats.
"I asked him the other day at an event, `Did he want me to speak good of him or bad of him?' because having a Democrat speak well of him in a Republican primary might not be that helpful," Dyer said.
Adams has $459,305 cash on hand but is not deterred by long odds. At age 18, she left an abusive, alcoholic husband, taking her 3-year-old daughter, Sonya, even though she had no prospects. She worked multiple jobs and got an education. She survived the death of one husband, deputy sheriff Frank Seton, when he was killed in a helicopter accident.
Some 20 miles and light-years from comfortable Lake Mary is Bithlo, a hardscrabble patch of trailers and junkyards off the road from Orlando to Titusville. The divide in this Orange County town of 8,300 residents is based on windows – trailers on the north side have them, the ones on the south side don't.
The people, who rely solely on wells and septic tanks for their water, have had to contend with water contaminated by leaking petroleum from underground storage tanks from a Conoco gas station and junkyards rising high with rusting cars.
Transportation isn't a choice between the traffic on I-4 and a commuter rail for the more well-heeled. Transportation is a lifeline that's too far.
Bithlo has no public bus service. The closest stop is eight miles away. Reaching a job or a doctor's appointment is nearly impossible for many; only half the residents have vehicles. One outlet is the bridge over the Econlockhatchee River, but there's no path, just a dangerous 24-inch shoulder on each side.
Tim McKinney, head of United Global Outreach, a nonprofit working to improve the community, said many residents have learned to walk atop the concrete sides of the bridge, figuring a jump down to the river is better than being struck by a car.
As Mica tours the community with McKinney, he questions why the planned expansion of the main road stops short of the bridge.
"If you don't have a way to get around, you don't have a job," Mica says. He promises to talk to John Lewis, the chief executive officer of the Lynx transportation system, about the bus service.
Federal dollars could go a long way in the hard-hit community, likely to be part of the new district.
Adams also spent time with members of the Bithlo community, listening to their questions at a lengthy nighttime meeting. She described them as a proud people who understand there are no government handouts.
"During the discussions, there were those who said: `You know, nothing's free. Somebody's paying for it somewhere. So we'd like to know,'" she said.