Commissioner to challenge for seat
By BILL VARIAN, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- Ending months of speculation, Stacey Easterling said Saturday that she will challenge fellow Republican Jim Norman for an open at-large seat on the Hillsborough County Commission.
Her announcement immediately makes the contest -- which pits two sitting commissioners against each other -- the most high profile of the six commission races this year. It features two scrappy campaigners and underscores the deeper struggle in Hillsborough County for the heart of the Republican Party.
Norman responded aggressively Saturday.
He said Easterling was only getting into the race at the bidding of influential east county Republican activist Sam Rashid, one of her biggest backers.
He questioned her party loyalty for challenging another Republican when she could pursue the at-large seat held by Democrat Pat Frank.
Norman also noted Easterling's vote to support Frank over him when the commission elected a chairman last year.
And he suggested Easterling has been campaigning for months anyway with a county-funded letter writing campaign to residents outside her current south and west Tampa district.
"The good news is she will have to start reporting her campaign expenses, whereas she has been conducting her campaign (until now) with taxpayer money," Norman said.
Easterling responded in kind.
She said she works for the people, not a political patron. She said she supported Frank for chairman -- along with the two other Republicans on the commission -- because Frank is more consistent and reliable.
"It's all well and good to hurl accusations," Easterling said. "It's another to make them stick."
Easterling said she will file the paperwork to set up her campaign Monday morning. Her current seat, which she has held less than two years, is up for election this year, and her announcement will clear the way for others to enter that race.
She said she wants to pursue a county-wide seat because it will allow her to discuss the issues she cares about most and that affect suburbanites in areas such as Valrico, where she grew up.
She said she chose to run against Norman because it is an open seat.
"It's an opportunity for me to champion the causes I want to champion," Easterling said. "I can't keep people focused on the issues if, in their eyes, I'm only representing one district."
Term limits are forcing Norman out of his north Hillsborough district seat. He announced his candidacy last year for the at-large seat, which is being vacated by Republican Chris Hart, also due to term limits.
Easterling's challenge underscores the divide among prominent activists within the Republican party.
She has enjoyed loyal backing from Rashid, who has been instrumental in the campaigns of several Republicans in recent years.
Norman is backed by businessman Ralph Hughes, a long-time Republican activist.
Hughes and Rashid had worked together in recent years on the campaigns of several Republican candidates for office, but split last year. Hughes is now backing a slate of commission candidates, including Norman, while Rashid is keeping a low profile and focusing his efforts on Easterling's campaign.
-- Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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