Sarasota, Florida - The Republican Party of Florida is calling a Democratic congressional candidate a no-show professor who skips classes to campaign. Keith Fitzgerald is a professor at New College of Florida in Sarasota and is running for the 16th congressional district.
The Republican Party is using comments from hundreds of student evaluations during his 17 years as a professor at New College, dating back to 1995. Students and Fitzgerald say those comments are taken out of context for political gain.
Fitzgerald says, "What this is about is political muscle on the part of insiders wanting to stop a middle class person running for office ... it's just wrong."
Fitzgerald is a tenured political science professor at New College of Florida, respected by administrators and many students.
"He is a passionate, brilliant instructor," says Stephen Miles, Provost at New College of Florida.
Hannah Ackerman, 21, Fitzgerald's student says, "He has a lot of insight being in the state legislature ... it's enriched the readings we were doing."
Fitzgerald served as a State Representative from 2007 to 2010, ran again unsuccessfully and is now running for Congress against the Republican incumbent Vern Buchanan. "Basically they are making things up, not true, I have not missed a class since I've been running for Congress ... not a single one," says Fitzgerald.
"From our perception the question is: are students being served, are classes being taught, are there any issues, disruption, absence ... there's been no evidence of that, what so ever," says Miles. He adds, "Is he or is he not meeting his responsibilities? ... he is."
The Republican Party is using excerpts from nearly 300 student evaluations of him - reportedly 40 percent of the comments are negative. During Fitzgerald's time as a state legislator some students evaluations stated Fitzgerald "was very difficult to contact", "was not attentive to his responsibilities to students" and "should have been more accessible." Some complained of class cancellations and tardiness.
Hannah says her teacher made it clear to his students that he would always be available to them. "Maybe we have to try a little harder to schedule meetings with him, send messages on Facebook, text him - he always made time for us," says Hannah.
The school's provost says Fitzgerald is being paid for the work he does. He usually teaches two courses along with two tutorials each semester, where he meets one-on-one with students weekly. Miles says Fitzgerald delayed one fall course to teach in the spring so he can work on his campaign.
"I can run for office and do my job working really, really hard," says Fitzgerald.
Andrew Swain, 22, one of Fitzgerald's students says, "We don't expect our evaluations to be used for politics or taken out of context."
"Politics can be pretty ugly," says Hannah.
A spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida says they stand by their position. The spokesperson says Fitzgerald shows a pattern of being more focused on seeking office than teaching the state-funded college and under a salary paid by taxpayers.