TAMPA — In the 1980s, before mostly beige, stucco subdivisions mottled the landscape, south Hillsborough County was a rural area where many families made their livings farming or working in a phosphate plant.
Stacy White grew up there, fishing the flats off Port Manatee and hunting the backwoods areas around his home in Wimauma. He can still remember the wide-open vistas south of Big Bend Road, carpeted with acre upon acre of pasture and cattle.
Now White, whose family goes back in the county five generations, will be representing his home turf and all of eastern Hillsborough as a county commissioner starting in November. White won a close, three-person race in the Republican primary Tuesday and faces only a write-in candidate Nov. 4.
“I’ve grown up understanding the issues that affect east and south Hillsborough County,” White said.
Those issues include growth, which is cranking up again in south county, and transportation. White concedes he sometimes feels like a “fish out of water,” having watched his rural, blue-collar home change into a densely suburban district where traffic gridlock is a daily fact of life.
“We’re the poster child for suburban sprawl,” White said. “I think in a lot of ways we hit spurts where we were just growing too quickly. We didn’t have enough time to stop to take a deep breath and think 20, 30 or 40 years down the road.”
That doesn’t mean he’s anti-growth, White said, but he wants to make sure development in his beloved south county is well planned.
“The development is heading that way,” he said, “and I think the commission has to collectively keep its eye on the ball and be more forward-thinking as that growth makes its way south.”
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White, 42, grew up in a modest home on State Road 674 across from Lake Wimauma. His father, Robert “Bobby” White, worked at the Riverview phosphate plant first owned by Gardinier, then Cargill and now Mosaic. Both of White’s grandfathers, his uncle and a great uncle also worked at the plant.
Those were good, solid jobs, White remembers, with decent salaries. Bobby White sometimes worked 16-hour shifts to support his family and to help his son get through college.
“He taught me self-reliance,” Stacy White said. “You should try not to put yourself in a position where you’re out there with your hand out, looking for something from somebody.”
From his mother, Marilyn McMurry, White said he learned to cherish his family roots. His grandmother and grandfather lived nearby, as did aunts, uncles and cousins. No one locked their doors, and visitors were welcomed with a cold glass of sweet tea.
Now 42, White is a clean-cut, mild-mannered pharmacist. But in high school, he ran with a wild bunch of long-haired country boys who favored denim jackets, said friend Scott Buzbee. Though White was “rambunctious” when with his friends, he got serious about his studies at East Bay High School.
“He was up for anything like we were,” Buzbee recalled. “We sort of carried it to school. But when he got to high school, he really concentrated ... he was all business and we weren’t.”
Away from school, White’s passion was fishing. He loved to catch mullet in a cast net or fish for bass in Lake Wimauma.
Friend Mike Council remembers a weekend fishing trip he and White took to Little Gasparilla Island when they were teenagers. White caught 13 or 14 snook over the weekend, and those were just the keepers. This was before snook were protected by today’s bag limits, said Council, who caught nothing that day.
“We were fishing the same hole with the same bait, the same hooks and everything, but it was his day,” Council said.
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White excelled at math and science and was in the math club at East Bay. Though no one in his immediate family had attended college, White thought he’d apply to several. Buzbee said he thinks his friend loved a challenge.
“I think he wanted to see if he could do it,” Buzbee said. “I don’t think it was, ‘I’m going to go to college and go into pharmacy.’”
White was accepted at Florida State University and attended there one year, later transferring to the University of Florida.
His interest in science started White thinking about a career in health care while still in high school. He enrolled in pre-health studies at the university and then was accepted at the school of pharmacy. He’s been a pharmacist for 18 years and plans to work part-time while on the commission. County commissioners are paid $95,500 a year.
White also met his wife, Barbie, at UF. They had both attended East Bay High School, but were two years apart and never met. They were introduced by mutual friends while in college at a get-together for East Bay graduates.
Barbie White received a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in education at the university. She taught for two years but now concentrates on raising the couple’s son and two daughters. The couple is active in PTA and booster clubs.
White said he always felt a calling to serve others. That’s how he got into pharmacy, then politics. After four years on the county school board, he was encouraged by supporters to run for the vacant District 4 commission seat.
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The district is overwhelmingly Republican and the three candidates worked hard to portray themselves as the true conservative. The campaign was marred by attack advertisements, some of which seemed to favor White because they were aimed at his Republican opponents, Rick Cochran and Janet Dougherty.
One mail-out advertisement attacking Cochran came from a Tallahassee-based electioneering organization. White says he has no connection to it. The advertisement made two claims against Cochran, a former Tampa Police detective, based on investigations conducted by the department’s internal affairs department.
One of the complaints, accusing Cochran of taking illegal steroids, was not upheld. The other, accusing Cochran of yelling at a woman while driving on an expressway, was sustained and he was reprimanded.
White said he does not know who paid for the mailers. Neither he nor his campaign coordinated with the Tallahassee organization, he said.
White suggested outside groups might have supported him during the campaign because he is against a 1-cent Hillsborough County sales tax increase that transit proponents want to put on the ballot in 2016. The tax increase would go for road improvements, expanded bus service and a light rail line from West Shore to downtown Tampa.
Cochran and Dougherty were also against the tax, though Dougherty said the county would have a hard time funding transportation projects without additional sources of money.
“It’s obvious from the content of the commercials that they were Stacy White fans,” White said. “Beyond that, maybe they just knew I’m opposed to the 1-cent sales tax package and maybe they wanted to back me.”
Beyond the transportation tax, White declined to describe his position on any issues that may face commissioners next year. He said he will concentrate on improving roads and on planning for growth.
“I would like to see the lion’s share of any transportation package,” he said, “dedicated to roads and drivability.”