No race on the ballot in Hillsborough County this year has a richer field of candidates than the County Commission District 6 seat, with no less than six serious players vying to win the countywide seat being vacated by a term-limited Kevin Beckner this fall.
In a stultifying warm room at the Ferguson Center of Law in downtown Tampa Friday, all of those candidates, with the exception of Republican Jim Norman, came before the Tampa Tiger Bay Club, where transportation issues like Go Hillsborough and the Tampa Bay Express project dominated the discussion.
Moderator Vic DiMaio said that Norman had canceled because his father is suffering from health problems, but it might have been a wise move for the controversial former commissioner, who would decidedly not be in his element in the left-leaning Tampa Tiger Bay audience.
“We need new ideas,” said Norman’s lone primary challenger, small-business man Tim Schock, in his brief introductory speech. “We need big ideas, not the same stale game of musical chairs played by the same politicians, looking for the next office. That’s not what we need.”
Schock was undoubtedly referring to Norman, who served in local and state elected office for two decades before opting not to run for re-election in 2012 after the controversy over a vacation home purchased by his wife became a legal nightmare for him beginning in 2010.
Although he made an initial splash when he raised $84,000 in his first full month of fundraising last fall, he hasn’t come close to that figure ever since, and was embarrassed in a straw poll of Hillsborough County Republicans earlier in the week.
At 33, Tampa attorney Brian Willis is by far the youngest candidate in the race, and he too is running on a platform of bringing new leadership to county government.
“I’m the new generation of leadership for this community,” he said. “When we win, we’re not going to change just one seat, we’re going to bring a whole fresh perspective to this community.”
One of those politicians who has been around for a while and is running again is former County Commissioner and Tampa City Council chairman Thomas Scott, who has been out of office for five years now. Scott’s acumen on county government served him well at different parts of the nearly hour-and-a-half event, particularly when he said that currently every nonprofit agency that receives county funding is already subjected to an audit.
The Senior pastor at the 34th Street Church in East Tampa, Scott roamed the space in front of him from left to right when addressing the audience as if he was back in church, and was never more poignant than when discussing how his 32-year-old brother died of AIDS when asked whether he supported legalizing medical marijuana (the issue will come before Florida voters on the state ballot this fall).
“The last days of his life were very critical,” he recounted with emotion. “He said to me ‘will you drive me around for my last time?’ I put him in my car and I drove him around town. To see the sunshine, see the city, see the beauty of what God had created. I saw him suffer his last few minutes of his life … I support medical marijuana and the passage of it because I think it will help those who are terminally ill and need some relief.”
Ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft — who officially are still out of compliance in Hillsborough and thus illegal here though they have been operating for over two years — came up at one point during the discussion.
It came when disability rights advocate Ben Ritter asked if the candidates would compel those companies to provide accessible transportation for the disabled to the same degree that the taxicab industry is held.
Several of the candidates didn’t answer the question head-on, but Schock said he would like to see “some percentage of their fleet have those options available,” and said that could be negotiated as part of their being allowed to operate in the county.
Willis said he disagreed with the idea of regulating Uber and Lyft like the cab companies, leaving unsaid whether or not he was OK with their current policy when it comes to serving the disabled.
With the now likely proposition that the sales tax referendum for transportation called Go Hillsborough has apparently risen from the dead to once again become a campaign issue this year, the candidates then talked explicitly about their views on the proposed half-cent sales tax referendum that may go before voters this fall which would last 15 years (the board votes next month on putting that measure on the November ballot).
Schock said the Board of County Commissioners instantly rejected his proposal at last month’s public hearing on the measure to make the tax for only five years. He denounced the BOCC for doing so, saying, “that’s about hubris and vanity.”
Schock said county voters can’t trust the board with a 30-year tax.
Former Plant City Mayor John Dicks called it “a travesty” that the current board has nothing to show for nearly three years of work on the Go Hillsborough proposal.
As a member of the Tampa Bay Sierra Club, Pat Kemp has been critical of the proposal for a sales tax to pay for transportation since last summer.
“It’s not a 21st century plan to look forward to the future,” she said Friday. “What we’re going to need to look at the CSX rails and converting them for commuter use” (such a study is scheduled to be conducted in 2017).
The Sierra Club’s opposition to the Go Hillsborough plan as initially presented last summer was a significant issue, as they teamed up members of the local Tea Party in Hillsborough County to advocate for raising the gas tax and mobility fees as a first step before going to the ballot box. They’ve also kept up the campaign of sorts that there are existing funds in the budget that could be tapped to first before a referendum.
A key member of that coalition, former County Commissioner and Tampa mayoral candidate Ed Turanchik, said the county would bring in additional billions this year that they could spend on transportation, and then asked the candidates if they were “tax and spend” county commissioners or a “spend well and tax in the last resort” county commissioner.
That question fired up Scott and Willis.
“Do you think a billion dollars is going to change our transportation problem?” Scott asked, walking right up to Turanchik, who sat in one of the closest tables up front facing the candidates.
He added that while Go Hillsborough “wasn’t a perfect plan,” it was a “good enough start,” a line that Dicks echoed.
“You’re taking money that is dedicated to going to other places,” Willis said about the idea of using funds in the budget to pay for transportation, an argument made frequently recently by County Administrator Mike Merrill.
The Board of Commissioners last week rejected doing that as well when they held a variety of votes on other potential sources of revenue, leading to the passage earlier this week of a bringing the Go Hillsborough proposal back up again.
“That growth? There’s a little thing called inflation, Ed,” Willis continued, with an edge in his voice. “I’m committed to fighting the Tea Party, who’s never supported any transit, in fighting for transit in this community … I’m committed to working with everybody, Ed. I’ll even work with you on the commission.”
The line got cheers, but Turanchik wouldn’t be denied a comeback.
“So you’ll work with everybody but the Tea Party?” he asked.
Regarding the Tampa Bay Express, the Florida Dept. of Transportation proposal that would add express toll lanes on I-275 and literally cut into the Seminole Heights/Tampa Heights area of Tampa, Dicks and Schock said they supported it, while the other three Democrats – Willis, Kemp and Scott – oppose it.
Dicks did admonish the DOT (ever so slightly) for displaying a lack of sensitivity to the concerns of the local neighborhoods that would be adversely impacted by the transportation project, saying that they “could do a much better job than what they’ve done in reaching out.”
He also said that rejecting the project means the DOT will just spend the billions earmarked for it on another project in the state.
Kemp, a Seminole Heights resident, has been made herself a presence at local government meetings over the past year in denouncing TBX. “It’s a sprawl machine to bring people down from Pasco County,” she said.
A national study released a year ago showed that Hillsborough County ranked 98th out of 100 of the nation’s largest counties when it comes to income mobility for poor families.
Willis called that statistic “a devastating indictment of the last several decades of leadership” in the county, and said the county needed to create “pathways to prosperity” to address that ranking. Schock said it showed how wrongheaded business officials are in Hillsborough for trying to recruit major corporations to relocate here, as opposed to cultivating small local businesses and entrepreneurs. As evidence, he cited Fortune 500 companies that reside in his home state of Minnesota. “Why? Because they started there. …we lose more Fortune 500 companies here doing it the way we’re doing it than we gain.”
The candidates have the whole long hot summer to continue to debate the issues, as the primary elections for both races don’t take place until Aug. 30. In the meantime, it might behoove the organizers of the Tampa Tiger Bay Club to either A) find a way to literally reduce the temperatures in the hall that they say will have two meetings a month the rest of the summer, or B) find a new place to hold their meetings. Although the audience was a large and enthusiastic one for Friday’s discussion, several people ducked out before the end, unable to enjoy themselves with the lack of sufficient air conditioning made the viewing uncomfortable.
(If you’d like to watch this debate, it will be aired in its entirety by Tampa Bay Arts & Education channel on Friday, June 3rd on Verizon/Frontier 32 and Broighthouse?Charter 635).