Key contributor's wallet closed so far
By BILL VARIAN, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- Businessman Sam Rashid has spent nearly $25,000 of his own money on Hillsborough elections in the past three years, making him one of the county's most generous campaign contributors.
So with six seats on the county commission up for election this year, you would expect Rashid to be opening his checkbook. Instead, he has given zero so far.
Rashid, a developer and a well-known Republican activist, has not retired from the campaign trail, however. Last week, he sent out one of his characteristically bare-knuckled campaign letters on behalf of his primary candidate this year, Republican Stacey Easterling.
In the letter, he attacks Easterling's primary opponent, Jim Norman, calling him the commission's last "liberal Republican" and requesting money to send him home.
But Rashid acknowledges that he is keeping his head down, like many Americans with roots in the Muslim world.
"Since Sept. 11, those that don't know me have made some really damaging statements about A, what I stand for, and B, who I am," said Rashid, a native of Pakistan. "So, yeah, I have definitely kept a low profile."
Rashid's hibernation after several years of in-your-face politicking has left even some of his fellow Republicans questioning his whereabouts, and what he's really up to.
"I think it's interesting," said Margie Kincaid, the longtime chairwoman of the Hillsborough County Republican Executive Committee and a contributor to Norman's campaign before Easterling declared for the same seat.
"I've never known him to hide his light under a bushel," Kincaid said. "I don't understand why anyone, unless they want to hide something, would not just be open about what they're doing."
Political consultant John Coley, who is assisting the campaigns of Norman and two other commission hopefuls, said Sept. 11 shouldn't affect Rashid.
"He's trying to say Norman is not a true Republican," Coley said. "But so far, Rashid's support of Republicans is not evident. He has failed to give a single dime."
Rashid made it clear last fall that he had Norman in his sights. Almost as soon as Norman declared his intention to seek an at-large commission seat after 10 years representing northern Hillsborough, Rashid accused him of circumventing county term limits.
He also blasted him for backing a redistricting plan that he said would make it harder for Easterling to retain her south and west Tampa district seat. Norman has said the map Rashid and Easterling supported would have been bad for his district.
Then came Sept. 11. Two weeks later, Democratic activist Patrick Manteiga ran an item about Rashid in the "As We Heard It" column of his family newspaper, which is read closely by political insiders.
In the column, Manteiga noted Rashid's ties to Pakistan, and said he was "ashamed" that people were spreading rumors that Rashid was under investigation by the FBI.
"These rumors are inappropriate and should stop," Manteiga wrote.
No such investigation was ever confirmed. Rashid thinks the column item was actually an effort by Manteiga to draw attention to his ethnicity. He said it threatened the welfare of his family.
After it appeared, Rashid asked for and received added police patrols of his Valrico home for a few days. He stopped taking reporters' calls, including those from national media wanting to know his thoughts about University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian, who has been accused of having ties to terrorists.
Rashid doesn't know Al-Arian and converted to Catholicism 20 years ago.
While he declines to name names, he said people withdrew from him as well. He has since shaved his facial hair.
Manteiga said his column item was written with sincere motives. He said he is surprised Rashid is now making an issue of it, since the two talked immediately afterward.
He claims the real reason Rashid is keeping a lower profile is because he knows fewer people are willing to be associated with him.
"I think he's trying to keep his name from being attached to the people he is helping because he believes it will help them in the long run," Manteiga said.
Rashid, 40, has been a contributor to conservative causes for years. He was one of three Republicans who organized the group "Balance to the Bench," to unseat a Florida Supreme Court justice whose ruling favored Vice President Al Gore during the elections imbroglio. Rashid began drawing attention in the past five years when he became more involved in local races, earning a reputation for pulling no punches.
He targeted Republican Dottie Berger in 1998 for her support of a referendum that ultimately led to the taxpayer-funded construction of Raymond James Stadium. After helping to oust her, he successfully fought Berger's appointment to a state post.
Two years later, he latched on to Easterling, assisting her successful campaign to unseat incumbent Democrat Ben Wacksman. That same year, he spent another $76,000 on state races.
In addition to Easterling, Rashid said he intends to support Will Craig, a commission aide to Republican Chris Hart, in his bid to succeed Norman in the north Hillsborough seat. He said has not done anything yet to assist the Craig campaign.
His latest letter in support of Easterling is evidence that Rashid has not mellowed.
In the letter, Rashid likens Norman to Jim Jeffords, the former Vermont legislator who was defeated after switching from the Republican to Democrat party, calling him "Jumping Jim Norman." Rashid also faults Norman for enabling the taxpayer-funded stadium deal.
"Today, we have an unprecedented opportunity to defeat the last remaining liberal Republican "Stadium Taxer' in Hillsborough County," Rashid wrote in the fundraising letter, which he sent to several business owners.
Norman, like Berger, has said he didn't support the tax. He said he only pushed for a referendum so that voters could decide. He said Rashid is the one betraying the party by encouraging someone to run against a fellow Republican.
Rashid has since fired off another missive that leaves no fuzziness about his intention to be active in this year's campaign. After learning that Norman's aide and campaign treasurer Ben Kelly had distributed a list of Rashid's past contributions to Democrats, Rashid replied with what he later said was a response guided by emotion.
"I sincerely hope that while you're spending all this time on the internet looking at my campaign contributions, you also are looking at job offers," Rashid wrote to Kelly. "Come September, you'll need one.
"Check out the Wendy's website -- I hear they have openings for some part-time graveyard shift cashiers. Of course, you may not qualify, you have to know how to count to 9."
Kelly responded: "Mr. Rashid, I 'm glad you think I'm important enough to email. Have a nice day!"
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