TAMPA — Three Hillsborough County Commission seats are up for election this year, but only one of the races is open to all county voters.
The contest for countywide District 7 promises to be a competitive affair, with four Republicans and two Democrats contending in the primaries Aug. 26. One of the Republicans, current Commissioner Al Higginbotham, will be making his first run for office outside his familiar east Hillsborough District 4.
Republicans hold a 5-2 advantage on the seven-member commission. Four commission seats are based on geographic boundaries. District 7 and two other districts span the entire 1,000-square-mile county. The winning commissioner will be paid $95,523 a year.
Higginbotham has to be considered the favorite on the Republican side because of his political experience as a two-term commissioner, his solid base of supporters and a huge advantage in campaign cash. The most recent campaign finance report shows Higginbotham with nearly $200,000 in contributions, well ahead of fellow Republicans Tim Schock, $60,740, Robin Lester, $24,130, and Don Kruse, $5,778.
If Higginbotham prevails in the primary, he’ll face either Patricia Kemp or Mark Nash on the Democratic side. Kemp and Nash have both failed in previous political outings.
Kemp was defeated by Janet Cruz in the 2010 contest for state House District 58. Nash fell short in his attempt to oust Higginbotham from the District 4 commission seat in 2012.
Kemp, 57, is a former chairman of the Hillsborough Democratic Party and worked as an aide for U.S. Rep Kathy Castor when Castor was on the county commission.
Nash, 52, worked on Democratic Commissioner Kevin Beckner’s winning campaign in 2008 and headed Linda Saul-Sena’s unsuccessful bid for a countywide commission seat in 2010.
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The two Democrats got into the race late after two other prominent members of their party, Tampa City Council member Mary Mulhern and county school board member April Griffin, dropped out. Nonetheless, Kemp and Nash got off to a good start in raising money: Nash has $54,248 in his account as of the latest public reports; Kemp has $38,404.
Still, Higginbotham remains the favorite to take the primary and general election. He has worked tirelessly to forge relationships with international trade partners, and he capped those efforts this year by helping bring Tampa the International Indian Film Academy Awards, better known as Bollywood.
In fact, the only reason Tampa was in the running for the gala awards show was because Higginbotham, a Plant City native, developed close friendships in the Indian-American community.
“I have probably made as many solicitations for new businesses coming in here as any other commissioner,” he said.
Higginbotham also touts his efforts to reduce county spending during the economic downturn when hundreds of county employees were pink-slipped. Unlike many other counties across the country that faced the same tide of red ink, Hillsborough’s commission refused to raise taxes to cover the deficit.
The county government weathered the economic downturn by consolidating departments and privatizing some services.
“I proved during those early years that I would make the difficult decisions when it came to consolidation, privatization and reduction of staff,” he said.
But the 60-year-old commissioner has been widely criticized for several high-profile votes. He angered a number of small business owners in February 2013 when he voted in favor of a $6.25 million subsidy to bring a Bass Pro Shops store to Brandon.
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Higginbotham also made enemies in the gay and lesbian community by voting against creating a domestic partner registry that would have allowed unmarried people to make certain legal decisions for their partners. The registry was also a priority for many unmarried heterosexual couples.
Higginbotham stands by his Bass Pro vote, saying the $6.25 million subsidy will bring a “great return” on the county’s investment. As for his problems with the gay and lesbian community, Higginbotham said he is still trying to come to grips with issues such as gay marriage that conflict with his Christian faith.
“President Obama has come around; President Clinton has come around,” he said, referring to those presidents’ stands on gay marriage. “I’m not trying to divert attention to them. It’s something I’m working on professionally and personally because it’s important.”
In 2010, Higginbotham spoke across the county against a 1-cent sales tax increase for transportation projects. The tax was defeated by a large margin.
But for the past 14 months, Higginbotham and the other six commissioners have been meeting with the county’s three city mayors as part of a transportation leadership policy group. This time, the group is expected to back a sales tax referendum for roads and mass transit in 2016.
Though not advocating a tax increase, Higginbotham said he will support the policy group’s position. Unlike 2010, Higginbotham said, this time the county government and the county’s three cities are united in their quest for a comprehensive solution to local traffic woes.
And opponents such as tea party members have been consulted during the 14-month planning process, Higginbotham said.
“I’m not going to be an impediment,” he said. “The problem we had before was that the people who complained said they were not at the table.”
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Of Higginbotham’s three Republican primary opponents, Lester and Kruse support the sales tax increase and the policy group’s transportation agenda.
Lester, who was a planning commissioner in Charlotte, North Carolina, cited that city’s success with its light-rail system. The policy group’s transportation plans include a light-rail link-up between downtown Tampa and the West Shore Business District.
“Obviously transit innovation and technology is not only going to drive the future economically,” Lester said, “but it is going to keep a lot of our young people here and help them craft careers, not just jobs.”
Lester, a managing partner of a venture capital firm, said she can bring a business approach to the commission and find greater returns on county investments. She also wants the county to work harder on regional cooperation.
“I think we have to look at other communities for best practices and vice versa,” she said.
Kruse said that if he’s elected, his priorities will be “to see through to fruition a smart transportation system that encourages smart growth to our metro areas — away from creating gridlock and producing sprawl.”
Reviving an idea he has used in past campaigns for county commission, Kruse said he wants to give property owners a two-year period during which they can improve their property by up 50 percent of its assessed value without being taxed on the added value. Kruse said the policy would create jobs and improve neighborhoods.
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Schock said he wants to bring his experience and skills as a business owner specializing in technology and transportation to the commission. Before creating his current business, Lightning Capital Consulting, Schock worked for TransCore, which developed the Sun Pass tolling system used on the Selmon and Veterans expressways.
As a commissioner, Schock said, he will look for ways to cut regulations and red tape to encourage entrepreneurs.
“We’re generating some great people coming out of local universities in terms of entrepreneurial spirit,” Schock said. “Yet a lot of folks are having to go someplace else to give themselves the best opportunities to build their careers.”
Schock said he does not support a tax increase for transportation; he maintains the county has enough money in its $3.9 billion budget to start improving roads and mass transit now. He also thinks county leaders should look to innovative solutions for traffic gridlock such as the reversible lanes on the Selmon Expressway and computerized “smart” traffic signals that improve vehicle flow.
As for a light-rail system, Schock said it wouldn’t work considering the county’s commuting patterns, with the bulk of motorists driving from the north and east into Tampa to work.
“I’m really a big advocate for rail in the right place where it has the right impact,” he said. “The Tampa Bay area and Hillsborough County don’t provide that.”
On the Democratic side, Mark Nash and Pat Kemp both favor the sales tax increase, and they have attacked Higginbotham for his vigorous opposition to the last transportation tax referendum, in 2010.
“We’ve got to improve transit in this community; we’re in trouble if we don’t,” said Nash, 52. “We need local leaders who have the skills to go out and explain to the public what’s at stake.”
A Brandon native, Nash said that area and the rest of east Hillsborough have suffered from a lack of planning and uncontrolled growth. He blames Higginbotham in part for the county’s sprawling development because he spent eight years on the commission and did nothing.
“The march to pave over our green spaces is very concerning,” Nash said. “I am not anti-development, but I am for smart growth.”
Both Nash and Kemp say transportation will be their priority if they are elected. They both advocate rail, and Kemp is a big booster of a proposed high-speed ferry system to carry workers from south Hillsborough County to MacDill Air Force Base.
Kemp, a lawyer, said she has a 23-year-old daughter who doesn’t want to live in a city where she has to drive a car. She also knows a junior at the University of South Florida who, with her sister, spends three hours a day on three different buses, traveling between her home in Town ’N Country and USF.
“We have to do something to give options for people that are caught this way,” Kemp said. “There is nothing we can do more to get employers with high-wage jobs to come here, and to lift up working families, younger people and older people, than to give them transportation options.”