At-large race may deepen rivalry
By BILL VARIAN, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- Hillsborough Commissioner Stacey Easterling says it would be a return to her suburban roots.
But her confirmation Monday that she is considering running against fellow Republican Jim Norman for the open at-large seat on the commission also underscores the growing rift among fellow party members on that board, not to mention the people who back them.
Easterling, who grew up in Brandon, has served for just 14 months in the County Commission's District 1 seat, which covers South and West Tampa. That seat is also up for election in November, but Easterling so far has not declared her candidacy for it. She said she will make a decision by the end of the month on whether to pursue the at-large, countywide post.
"It's a very real possibility," Easterling said. "On a very topical level, I think I represent the suburban interests better than anyone that's declared so far."
Easterling declined to be more specific. But her comments were clearly directed at Norman, since he is the only person who has qualified for the at-large seat being vacated by another Republican, Chris Hart.
Norman is serves the District 2 seat representing the northern and very suburban part of Hillsborough County, but is being forced out because of term limits. He declared his candidacy for the at-large post six months ago and has already amassed a formidable campaign war chest of $121,284.
Norman said he welcomed the competition. "I'm not intimidated at all," Norman said. "I've had tough campaigns before and I will not back down from anybody. I wish her well."
The Easterling rumor has been making the rounds at the County Center for much of the fall and winter. Easterling, questioned by a reporter a month ago, laughed it off, but said Monday that time has led her to give the prospect more serious consideration.
Although Republicans hold a 4-3 majority on the commission, they have increasingly been at odds with one another, particularly Norman and Easterling. The divide became evident during the summer when commissioners took up changes to voting district lines to reflect census changes.
Norman and Easterling fought for competing redistricting proposals. A compromise ultimately passed that more dramatically altered the District 1 boundaries represented by Easterling, expanding them into the more rural southeastern part of the county.
Easterling acknowledges that redistricting marked a defining time for her and the board, one that disappointed her, but she declined to point the finger at Norman. "The greater good seemed to be low on the priority list for some people," she said.
Their differences have also spilled over into Republican fundraising circles, where conservative businessmen Sam Rashid and Ralph Hughes are now battling. Both men have been influential in their joint support of most of the Republican majority.
Rashid, who took a personal interest in Easterling's first campaign and channeled about $8,500 into it, blasted Norman during the redistricting process for supporting a plan he said hurt a fellow Republican. He also has expressed his disapproval of Norman for trying to jump seats, which he said violates the spirit of term limits.
Rashid, who did not return calls for comment, is widely considered to be looking for another Republican candidate to support in opposition to Norman. Easterling could be that candidate. She won her seat against incumbent Democrat Ben Wacksman in a district where Democratic voters are the majority and despite being outspent 2-to-1.
Hughes, a strong Norman backer who supported Easterling's last campaign, described her prospective campaign move as "ludicrous."
"It is very strange when a commissioner is elected to a single-member district and 14 months into her term decides not to run in the district where she was elected," Hughes said. "I've got to feel that her supporters realize that her chances of being re-elected are not as good as they'd like to believe."
Again, Easterling would face an opponent with a financial advantage, but one, like her, who has a shoe-leather approach to campaigning. Norman spends much of his week visiting hundreds of homes, even when it's not election time.
"If she outworks me, then I take my hat off," Norman said. "But I haven't seen anyone do that yet."
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