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ORLANDO – One of the first things that Peg Dunmire thought of when she heard about the tragic shootings in Tucson, Arizona that critically injured a local congresswoman was the final day of her own campaign for Congress last November. On that single day, Dunmire and her staff and supporters watched uncomfortably as four men followed them from one event to the next.
It was election day, and Dunmire — the Florida Tea Party’s candidate for the state’s 8th Congressional District — had posted her campaign schedule on her Web site that morning.
As she and her staff traveled from one event to the next, they noticed the same four men following her everywhere they went.
“They got my schedule because I had released it that morning, where I was going to be on Election Day,” Dunmire said. “They went to all my events.”
Finally, the staff got nervous enough that they contacted police. An officer approached one of the men to find out why he was following the candidate.
“You know what they said?” Dunmire recalled. “They said, ‘Because she’s not a legitimate candidate.’ I think elections decide that.”
Saturday’s shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others at a supermarket parking lot in Tucson has set off a national debate about anger, violence and heated political rhetoric in American politics.
It’s not yet clear if the man arrested for the shooting, Jared Lee Loughner, had any clear political motive, but the case has put a spotlight on the issue of inflammatory political language, and spurred a number of lawmakers to question how they can protect themselves at public events — with a few promising they’ll carry weapons themselves from now on.
Another lawmaker, U.S. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., announced she would introduce legislation aimed at banning the high-capacity ammunition clip used by the gunman in the Tucson shootings. McCarthy won a seat in Congress in 1996, three years after her husband was shot and killed, and her son seriously injured, during a shooting on a Long Island commuter train.
Dunmire, the chairman of the Florida Tea Party, said she understands how ugly campaign speech can get, noting that the stalkers who followed her on election day were symptomatic of anyone who disagreed with her views or platform, and responded as if her candidacy posed a threat.
“I ended up being subjected to the rhetoric of hate,” Dunmire said. “It happened to me here. We need to understand this hostility is pervasive.”