For Greenlight Pinellas to be killed, sensible Republicans must do the deed

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Based on a recent survey by St. Pete Polls commissioned by this blog, the Greenlight Pinellas campaign to increase sales taxes to expand mass transit is headed for defeat.

Were this to occur, the reasons for Greenlight Pinellas’ defeat will be numerous, but foremost among them will be that the campaign — despite hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority on “educating” the community — was defined by its opponents before it could define itself. The two months of relatively negative press the campaign has endured since it launched knocked it of the rails before it could even get out of the station. 

Despite raising more than $66,000 in the campaign’s first month, this is nowhere near the kind of money an initiative like this needs. Greenlight Pinellas needs at least $250,000 — now — just to get back to where it was in December when a Tampa Bay Times poll showed that a majority of Pinellas voters may support the idea. After that, GP will need another $500,000 to hold on to its base and another $500,00 to $750,000 to win over undecided voters. Proponents of GP will have to do this while competing with the gubernatorial race for whatever oxygen is left in the political atmosphere. 

If Greenlight Pinellas has one advantage, it’s who is on the opposite side of the issue. 

In the media and at debates, like the one which took place last week at the St. Pete Yacht Club, the opponents of Greenlight Pinellas have been bracketed as Tea Partiers. The most vocal opponents include Barb Haselden of No Tax for Tracks, outspoken libertarian Dr. David McKalip, and gadfly and government watchdog Tom Rask.

Haselden, McKalip, and Rask are undoubtedly passionate in their political views and their voices deserve to be heard, but they can be marginalized. So long as the debate over Greenlight Pinellas is Ken Welch, Chris Steinocher, Darden Rice, and others versus Haselden, McKalip, Rask, and other representatives from the Party of No, the proponents of Greenlight Pinellas have a chance of pulling out a win. 

Again, nothing against Haselden or McKalip, but Pinellas voters have cast ballots for Ken Welch, Jeff Danner, Susan Latvala, Darden Rice, etc. Voters, by and large, trust them. Haselden and McKalip and Rask have not won elections before. They may be smart, they may be right, but they haven’t received 50 percent + 1 at the ballot box. 

Of course, there is always the scenario where the establishment loses to a coalition of grassroots activists. That’s what happened to the light rail initiative in Hillsborough. But Pinellas doesn’t have the same kind of anti-government voting base that resides in (mostly East) Hillsborough. 

That’s why, for Greenlight Pinellas to be defeated, a coalition of sensible Republicans must step up and become the face of the opposition.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes was the first of the sensible Republicans to step forward. Yes, he’s a libertarian, so it makes sense that he is against a major tax increase, but Brandes is also the legislative booster of Google Car and Uber, so his credibility on transportation issues can’t be questioned.

Two weeks ago, Brandes called for an investigation by the Department of Transportation into the spending by PSTA on the education phase of the Greenlight Pinellas campaign. What comes of the investigation is secondary to the fact that, in just calling for an inquiry, Brandes has publicly declared that he is not only opposed to GP, but he’s willing to lead the charge against it. 

That’s very bad news for GP, which is now being run by Brandes’ allies in the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, a light rail station divided against itself cannot stand. 

The question now is, will other sensible Republicans join Brandes in opposing Greenlight Pinellas? Will newly-elected U.S. Rep. David Jolly weigh in? Where does former Mayor Rick Baker stand?

Baker told Creative Loafing‘s Mitch Perry last week that he is an “undecided voter” on the issue.  

“People ask me, ‘what do you think about transit?'” Baker said. “To me, that’s like asking, ‘what do you think about cars?’ Some cars I like, some cars I don’t like. I’m certainly not against it, but I’d like to learn more about it.”

At the end of the day, Baker will likely make his decision based on both the policy and the politics of Greenlight Pinellas. If he continues to see poll numbers like those from St. Pete Polls, he will probably stay on the sidelines and quietly oppose GP, much the same way he opposed “The Lens” concept for the St. Petersburg Pier. That two of Baker’s ideological adversaries — Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and the Tampa Bay Times — support Greenlight Pinellas may be enough to push him in the opposite direction.

If Baker were to team up with Brandes, perhaps forming and funding a political committee opposed to Greenlight Pinellas, advocates of Greenlight Yes! would have their hands full campaigning against South Pinellas’ two most popular politicians. 

Brandes and Baker are but two pols, while dozens support Greenlight Pinellas, so how could they make that much of a difference? Because Greenlight Pinellas’ path to victory is already so narrow.

Even if you put more faith in the poll from the Tampa Bay Times, voters aren’t exactly clamoring for their taxes to be raised to pay for light rail. Support for Greenlight Pinellas enjoyed its high-water mark the day it transitioned from an educational campaign to an electoral one. Now it’s simply a matter of how much support Greenlight Pinellas loses between now and November. 

The Ken Welch argument — that Pinellas County has to do SOMETHING — just isn’t compelling enough. The argument that Pinellas needs Greenlight Pinellas in order to grow its population is bizarre (just what current residents want more of: people who need mass transit!). The argument that Pinellas needs Greenlight Pinellas to keep the Tampa Bay Rays is an outright lie. The argument that Pinellas needs GP so that, maybe, one day, it will connect up with a light rail system that, maybe, one day, will be built in Hillsborough, is a ham-and-eggs decision that certainly does not have to be made today.

There are so many vulnerabilities to the arguments for Greenlight Pinellas. Yet, so long as the debate over the referendum is elected officials versus grassroot’ers from the far right, the initiative might win.

But if Pinellas’ sensible Republicans decide to fight Greenlight Pinellas, the initiative will likely be stopped in its tracks.  

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.