MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Mark Foley's former district, Florida's 16th Congressional District, stretches across south central Florida. It meanders from wealthy beach communities on the Atlantic Coast through rural sugar cane fields all the way to the Gulf Coast.
NPR's Greg Allen spent time in the district talking to some of Foley's former constituents and has this report.
GREG ALLEN: Wellington is one of south Florida's best manicured suburbs. On weekends, a focus of activity is at the Wellington Village Park, where kids aged six to 15 play football.
(Soundbite of children playing)
ALLEN: Sunday was picture day. A few kids played impromptu games while teams, coaches and patient parents waited for their turn in front of the camera. Colleen Font says she voted for Mark Foley and thought he was a great Congressman. At first, Font says, she was inclined to be sympathetic toward Foley, until she learned about the age of the Congressional page.
Ms. COLLEEN FONTS: Knowing that there's a 16-year-old involved makes me sick to my stomach, and I think he needs to be punished for that, myself.
ALLEN: The FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement have begun investigating whether Foley's contacts with pages broke the law. Until last Thursday, when the news of Foley's e-mails and instant messages began to come out, he had been one of Florida's most popular members of Congress. He was active locally, making appearances throughout the district.
Jason Sundik(ph), who coaches a football team of nine- and 10-year-olds, says the question many are now asking is how a Congress, the co-chair of the Congressional Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus, could have such poor judgment.
Mr. JASON SUNDIK: I think that's probably the biggest surprise. Everyone thought this was a guy that had a good head on his shoulders and had his, you know, had his ideas straight. And to be doing this in this day and age.
ALLEN: Sundik says the episode raises questions that go beyond Mark Foley's behavior. He wants to know why the questionable e-mails have only become public now, 10 months after they were brought to the attention of Republican leaders. Colleen Fonts thinks Republican leaders miscalculated.
Ms. FONTS: I think they probably kept it to themselves for a while because they didn't want to cause, you know, a huge outroar. But I think they're going to get the outroar anyway, and I think that they're going to - I think things are really going to start hitting the fan soon. I really do. Because this is a big deal.
ALLEN: Republican leaders have been scrambling since Friday to determine how best to handle Foley's resignation and a scandal that threatens to tar others in the party. In Orlando today, Republican leaders met and selected State Representative Joe Negron to run in Foley's place. Florida law prevents Foley's name from being removed from the ballot, and no other names can be inserted at this late date. Any votes cast for Foley will now go to Negron. Jeff Sadosky, a spokesperson for the Florida Republican Party, concedes that asking voters to cast a ballot for Mark Foley presents a challenge.
Mr. JEFF SADOSKY (Florida Republican Party): Not something that they might be originally inclined to do, but once we kind of get out there and talk about what that means and make sure voters are educated about the process, we're pretty confident that our candidate will be able to hold the seat.
ALLEN: The beneficiary of all this political turmoil is Democratic candidate Tim Mahoney. He's a wealthy businessman who has been running a well funded and aggressive campaign but who, until last Thursday, seemed likely to finish second to the well liked Foley. Now, the race appears to be Mahoney's to lose.
Mahoney calls Foley's departure a distraction and says he'll continue to focus his campaign on the issues. But he says one of those issues is restoring confidence in Congress, and a prime example, he says, is the way the Republican leadership has handled the allegations surrounding Mark Foley.
Mr. TIM MAHONEY (Congressional Candidate, Florida): Was it so important that, retaining a seat, that the Republican leadership would turn a blind eye to an investigation that needed to happen? You know, that's choosing power over our children. That's a wrong priority. We need to get priorities back on track.
ALLEN: Mahoney emphatically denies any suggestion that his campaign was involved in leaking the e-mails that led to Foley's departure. He is well positioned, though, to ride the Foley scandal to victory.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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