Republican Johnny Johnson at odds with local GOP over Greenlight Pinellas issue

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Johnny Johnson, a Republican, is glad to be stepping outside his party on a transit issue. The retired dentist is a Republican running for District 4 Pinellas County Commissioner and he supports Greenlight Pinellas.

“It’s about bringing businesses to the area and getting good quality companies who are going to [offer] good paying jobs,” Johnson said.

Greenlight Pinellas is a campaign supporting a one penny sales tax hike that would fund expanded bus service in Pinellas County as well as bus rapid transit and passenger rail.

Today the Pinellas County Republicans announced they oppose the plan.

“We believe that this proposed sales tax increase would do more harm than good, especially to the county’s poorest residents, disabled veterans and our seniors on fixed incomes,” read a statement from the party.

And of course they oppose tax increases.

But Johnson stands behind his support for Greenlight.

“It’s a fair plan,” he said. “It brings tourists into the tax base.”

That’s because even though the plan would increase sales tax from 7% to 8% it would also eliminate the portion of property tax homeowners currently pay for public transportation.

Johnson is running to replace retiring commissioner Susan Latvala. She has endorsed Johnson and cut a check for $500 to his campaign. It’s a choice she made because he supports Greenlight Pinellas. Like Johnson, Latvala thinks the referendum is a way to grow the economy and bring jobs to the area.

“The number one reason we hear from companies about why they’re not moving here is transportation,” Latvala said.

This isn’t the only time Johnson has stepped outside of party norms.

During the last County Commission election Johnson campaigned for commissioners Janet Long and Charlie Justice, both Democrats. He did so because they said they would vote to return fluoride to the county’s drinking water.

A photo of him donning a sandwich board in the shape of a tooth and holding signs for the two Democrats could be damning for a candidate running in the conservative North County district Johnson seeks to win. But he doesn’t see it that way.

“It was a public health issue – a non-partisan health issue – that cut off 700,000 people from the benefits of fluoridation,” Johnson said.

Both Long and Justice were elected as a result of the fluoride issue. As the spokesperson for local and state dental associations, Johnson was at the helm of dentists leading the fight. Republicans Neil Brickfield and Nancy Bostock were ousted from their positions. It was the first time in nearly 30 years a Republican incumbent had lost their seat in a re-election bid.

The blurring of party lines doesn’t appear to be hurting Johnson though. He’s out-raising even his closest opponent, State Rep. Peter Nehr by more than half. Johnson says it’s all about name recognition, which was something he struggled with at first. But he’s using his financial stronghold to fix that by putting Dr. Johnny on campaign mailers and TV spots. That’s the name his patients know him by.

Nehr and Johnson are in a crowded primary. There are seven Republicans running, one Democrat and two no-party affiliations.

The primary is August 26.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.