It’s a Monday night — cold outside for Florida. The CFP National Championship game will be on soon. Alabama versus Clemson.
Charlie Justice makes way around a second-floor conference room at the Belleair Country Club. Speaking to supporters, the Pinellas County commissioner waits until it’s time to step up to the lectern.
He’s got Alabama. Justice says he didn’t like the way Dabo Swinney, Clemson’s head coach, handled an impromptu fake punt during a game a couple weeks earlier. The kid ended up getting reamed out and yoked around by his coach for the play — on national television.
By the time Justice addresses the faithful, he’s already grabbed a few pictures with his fellow Democratic commissioners, Janet Long and Pat Gerard.
Long, who represents District 1, and Justice, who represents District 3, both jumped onto the local scene at the same time, each winning their respective commission posts in 2012.
After spending 10 years in the Florida House, Justice, who had since begun working for the University of South Florida, says he decided to get back into politics when, in his words, he saw too much partisanship within the Pinellas County Commission.
“When you get too much partisanship, you lose production,” Justice said to supporters. “And that was what was happening with our Pinellas County Commission.”
According to Justice, since 2012 the commission has seen much progress.
“We’ve expanded our human rights,” said Justice, referring to a 2013 ordinance passed by the Pinellas County Commission which struck the word “sex” from the county’s anti-discrimination policy and replaced it with “gender.”
“Tourism is off the charts,” continued Justice, “and, as we read today, St. Pete-Clearwater Airport — as far as flights in and out of the airport go — has shattered another record.”
He also acknowledged some work that still needs to be done, including further job creation, maintaining a healthy county water supply, and improving area transportation methods. He also mentioned the possibility of building “a stadium or two,” alluding to a possible new Tampa Bay Rays stadium, or even a spring training facility for the Atlanta Braves in the future.
But, before Justice begins to undertake all the work he says lies ahead for the commission, he’ll have to beat out his lone competition for his District 3 seat, 60-year-old Republican Mike Mikurak.
Mikurak chairs the audit committee at BayCare Health System and is on the boards of BayCare, CareerSource Pinellas and the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County.
What’s at stake in this race isn’t just a spot on Pinellas County Commission, but also majority rule of the board.
For the first time in about 50 years, the seven-member board is controlled by the Democrats, with four members of the party occupying commission seats.
If Mikurak wins, he’ll likely re-establish the county commission as a Republican-heavy board. Only one of the four seats up for grabs in 2016 is held by a Republican, the hard-to-beat longtime Commissioner Karen Seel, who holds the District 5 seat.
And, so far, Mikurak does have a fundraising lead over Justice, having hauled in nearly $65,000 in donations and loans for his cause. Justice has raised about $19,000.
The general election doesn’t take place until November, though, so there’s plenty of time to catch up.
While Justice undertakes that effort, he’s making sure not to lose sight of the big picture.
“For me, it comes down to this: I have two daughters, 13-years-old and 10-year-old,” Justice said. “I grew up here. I didn’t want to leave. This is a beautiful place and a wonderful place to be. When they grow up, I want my daughters to have the exact same feeling about Pinellas County that I have.
“And the only way they will is if we leave it better for them than it was left for us.”