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Three candidates vie to lead Hillsborough County Dems in 2016

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

There are now three candidates vying to become the next chair of the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee, and none of them are Mark Hanisee.

Ione Townsend (pictured), Mike Newett and Alvin Wolfe have all declared their intentions to lead the party when the Hillsborough DEC membership convenes to vote to succeed Elizabeth Belcher on January 11.

Hanisee was immediately floated as a possible successor to Belcher when she announced she would be stepping down in November. The former chair of the Pinellas County Democratic Executive Committee from 2010-2014, he came on board in January of 2015 to help lead the Hillsborough Democrats with fundraising efforts, and by all estimates, has done a bang-up job as its finance director.

However, there were obstacles blocking him from even running, beginning with the fact that he doesn’t live in Hillsborough (yet) and wasn’t an actual member of the Hillsborough County DEC,  a crucial issue that SPB initially reported last month.

There was speculation that Hanisee supporters were pushing to get a vote preceding the election for the new chair on relaxing those bylaws, but a directive from the Florida Democratic Party indicated that wouldn’t be possible.

“There was a little-known FDP rule that said when a county chair steps down, it freezes new people from coming into the party until a new chair was elected,” Hanisee said late last week. He intends to remain as the financial director of the party, where friends and critics alike acknowledge he has performed impressively.

Hanisee says he is backing Townsend for the chair. The fact that she is serving as acting chair at the moment may make her the favorite.

“I’ve been first vice chair during this term, and I think I can provide some stability and keep us on the track that we set out for ourselves in Dec 2014,” Townsend says, referring to the date when both she and Belcher were elected as top officers for the party. “I think I’m the best candidate to do that at this point, we’ve had some significant progress, and I want to keep going in that direction.”

A native of Maine and a Plant City resident since 2010, Townsend says a vote for her would stay the course for a party that she believes is on the upswing.

With Hillsborough County being so large, she says the Hillsborough Democratic Party is taking a different election in attempting to pull the vote out in 2016. That new approach includes dividing the county into six different regions, with regional directors being responsible for a little less than 60 precincts each. “We think we’ll able to build an enduring election infrasture that we won’t have to recreate every two years. That’s my goal.”

Alvin W. Wolfe has been involved with the Hillsborough DEC for the past 15 years and served as platform chair for the past decade. A former anthropology professor at USF for decades, Wolfe says he respects what Townsend has done as vice chair, and says it’d be better for the party if she remains in her current position.

“Were I elected to be chair I would want to make the party open, active and visible,” Wolfe writes in a paper espousing his candidacy.

Wolfe says he was upset that Belcher stepped down in November. He praises her leadership, particularly with finances, something in which Hanisee certainly played a large part. But he’s critical regarding the recruitment of new members. “She did not even appoint a chairperson for the membership committee. Well, if you’re not doing that, you’re not doing part of your job.”

Mike Newett became the first Hillsborough Democrat to announce his candidacy to succeed Belcher last month. A Seffner resident who relocated from Chicago six years ago, Newett currently is head of the Eastern Hillsborough Democratic Club, serves as treasurer of the Tampa Bay Sierra Club, and is treasurer of the Florida Democratic Environmental Caucus.

He said on Friday that he will publish a position paper espousing why Hillsborough County Democrats should elect him to be their next chair (a paper that as of Sunday had not been released). Having said that, however, he’s extremely effusive in praising both Wolfe and Townsend.

One thing that he’d change if elected chair would be to emphasize an attempt to bring in more community groups into the party that he says he hasn’t seen an effort to make in the past. “There hasn’t been the spirit of inclusion in the past in the community that we would have hoped for,” he says.

The election takes place on Monday, January 11.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at

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