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Strategists thrive on political challenges

TAMPA - Two years ago, Kevin Beckner pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Hillsborough County political history. An openly gay Democrat, Beckner smashed incumbent Republican Brian Blair by 49,000 votes in a countywide commission race. Beckner won two out of three precincts, garnering widespread support across a traditionally Republican county. Mitch Kates and Mark Nash, the strategists who helped engineer Beckner's victory, are trying to replicate that success for Democratic City Councilwoman Linda Saul-Sena, who is challenging county commission Chairman Ken Hagan for a countywide seat. The odds seem to favor Hagan, a Republican commissioner since 2002. Hagan is leaving his northwest county District 2 where he has won three elections. Though known as the quietest commissioner, Hagan is a prodigious fundraiser, with $250,000 in his campaign war chest.
"He's a hard, diligent worker," said Republican strategist April Schiff, who is not involved in Hagan's campaign. "He may not be out there on the stump, but he's knocking on doors; that's how he won his first race." Yet Kates and Nash say Hagan is vulnerable. During his chairmanship, the county has struggled through a string of embarrassing revelations, from unreported pay raises for high-level administrators to a sexual harassment judgment against a sitting commissioner. "Linda's opponent is chair of this county commission ... so he (is) going to have to deal with that," Kates said. "And the voters in general in this election cycle are not happy." Name recognition hazy Saul-Sena faces her own challenges. A five-term city councilwoman, she is well-known in Tampa, but not so much in the suburbs and rural areas. And she has acquired the image of a dreamy tree-hugger, championing issues with little resonance among the citizenry. In January 2008, for instance, Saul-Sena threatened to "embarrass" furniture giant Ikea if the company did not incorporate environmentally friendly designs for its proposed Tampa store. She later backed down and apologized to the Ikea president. That same year, Saul-Sena tried to use the city's upcoming franchise agreement with Tampa Electric Co. to make TECO adopt a renewable energy program and lessen its use of coal. In the end, a majority of council members abandoned Saul-Sena and approved the franchise agreement. Perhaps Saul-Sena's biggest obstacle will be connecting with suburbanites, many of whom distrust Tampa politicians, especially a liberal who lives on Davis Islands. "In certain parts of the county, such as some areas of Brandon and Valrico, there seems to be antipathy to all things Tampa," said Scott Paine, a professor of political science at the University of Tampa. Still, Kates and Nash remain confident. In her first reporting cycle, Saul-Sena raised nearly $75,000. And she's already drawing from the large volunteer base that boosted Beckner's election. But Saul-Sena's trump card may be the Kates-Nash team itself. "Linda Saul-Sena has put together a team that's been very successful in running a countywide election with an unknown candidate," said Republican consultant Mark Proctor. Both men have marketing backgrounds. Kates worked on several presidential campaigns in western Pennsylvania before joining a Boston city councilwoman's effort to oust the sitting mayor. Although unsuccessful in that race, Kates said he picked up valuable experience. In 2006, the Florida Democratic Party recruited Kates to help run state Rep. Charlie Justice's state Senate campaign. Though outspent $7 million to $2 million, Justice defeated Republican state Rep. Kim Berfield. Nash, a Florida native with generational roots in Brandon, volunteered on the Justice campaign and worked with Kates on Mary Mulhern's upset victory over Councilman Shawn Harrison for a citywide seat. He was Beckner's legislative aide before resigning to work for Saul-Sena. Contesting territory In the Beckner-Blair race, Kates and Nash executed a "countywide" plan, refusing to concede even the most conservative strongholds to Blair. "We had as hard a working candidate as you'll ever find," Kates said. "He went to some places that people thought maybe he shouldn't have." They used social media to disseminate Beckner's message, and attracted hundreds of converts across the county willing to work on his behalf. Green-shirted Beckner workers showed up at three Fourth of July parades. "It was certainly a grassroots campaign we ran from the beginning," Beckner said. "It was all about connecting with people in an old-fashioned, shoe-leather but coordinated way." The plan to defeat Hagan is largely the same: taking on the incumbent in every corner of the county, attracting a large group of volunteers and campaigning on a theme of good government and planned growth. Like Beckner, Saul-Sena is a smart, attractive candidate who connects with voters on a personal level, Nash said. And as a former urban planner, her issues will resonate with suburbanites sick of sprawl and snarled traffic. "A lot of the things she's focused on are the things a lot of people in this county are focused on and they are quality of life issues," Nash said. Saul-Sena agrees, saying she's hearing a familiar theme meeting with residents from Lutz to Riverview. "Across the board people want to protect the qualities that attracted them to an area," Saul-Sena said. "People tell you about the beauty of the county, and they want to protect it." Independent factor An independent, Jim Hosler, is also seeking the seat but has raised just $330. He has mounted an aggressive Internet campaign, however, railing against a 1-cent transit tax on the Nov. 2 ballot. Saul-Sena favors the tax; Hagan said he is against it but voted for transportation projects the tax would fund as chairman of the county transportation task force. He later voted as a commissioner to put the tax before voters. Hosler also opposes sprawling growth, which he said benefits developers and land-use lawyers who contribute to commissioners' campaigns. Whether Hosler will be a factor remains to be seen. He has been visible at debates opposing the transit tax, a factor that could siphon conservative votes from Hagan. But liberal, pro-environment voters, who would ordinarily support Saul-Sena, might be attracted to Hosler's anti-sprawl message. Hagan said he will run on his record as a strong conservative who has voted to lower property tax rates every year he's been in office while supporting tough fiscal policies.

Reporter Mike Salinero can be reached at (813) 259-8303.

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