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4 commissioners hold leads

Jim Norman, Pat Frank and Chris Hart all cruise toward wins.

By BILL VARIAN, BILL COATS and SUSAN THURSTON
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 11, 2002


TAMPA -- After one of the season's most bitterly fought campaigns, Hillsborough Commissioner Jim Norman appeared to have fended off fellow Republican board member Stacey Easterling late Tuesday in the at-large District 5 race.

And in a year in which most challengers were campaigning on a throw-the-bums-out platform, most sitting commissioners appeared to cruise to victories based on preliminary election results. They included Pat Frank as well as Chris Hart, who had to leave his at-large seat due to term limits and is seeking the District 1 seat representing south and west Tampa.

After a campaign that found both Republicans trading vicious attack mailers, Norman claimed what looked like a comfortable majority with most precincts reporting.

"I think this speaks volumes for the cross-section of support I gained," said Norman from the offices of his campaign consultant.

Norman had to leave his District 2 seat representing northern Hillsborough because of term limits. After he announced, Easterling jumped from the District 1 seat she held for just two years to challenge him.

Tuesday's victor will face Democrat Susan Valdez along with two write-in candidates in the general election.

Easterling did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment Tuesday night.

In the other at-large race, District 7, Frank held a commanding vote over HARTline spokesman Ed Crawford. Throughout his campaign, Crawford claimed Frank, as the chairwoman of the commission for the past three years, was particularly to blame for the board's dysfunction.

"I think that was a misportrayal," Frank said from her campaign headquarters in South Tampa. "The trouble is that some people disagree with some of the decisions we've made. It's not the general public."

Crawford said it may be that he misjudged the popular perception in placing such an emphasis on board behavior.

"I think either we misjudged the level of dissatisfaction people have with the County Commission," Crawford said, "or Pat was successful at convincing people that if it is dysfunctional, it's not her fault."

In the other commission races, Ken Hagan, a 34-year-old newcomer to public life, was leading three fellow Republicans for the nomination to Norman's open seat. Depicting himself as the most conservative candidate, Hagan appeared to best his opponents, the closest of whom was Lutz activist Denise Lasher. Hagan would face Democrat Ron Dyser and independent Rod Gaudin in November.

Among Republicans, the north Hillsborough contest was an expensive donnybrook over a choice job. The district has re-elected Norman twice without opposition, and has become increasingly Republican during his tenure.

Hagan and Lasher built up the largest campaign treasuries. Unlike his rivals, Hagan skipped debates. The former marketer of financial services focused on door-to-door campaigning, enlisting a network of relatives and friends from his childhood in Carrollwood.

"All of the work walking neighborhoods has paid off, and I thank all of the voters for their support," he said.

Lasher could not be reached for comment. She was targeted in a last-minute mailing Saturday from a Hagan supporter that prompted her to file suit Monday against Hagan and the supporter. The suit said the mailing violated election laws and defamed her.

In District 1, Commissioner Chris Hart held a convincing lead over business owner Gene Wells for the Republican nomination. Kathy Castor appeared to push past opponents John Dingfelder and Mimi Kehoe Osiason for the Democratic ticket.

Castor, 36-year-old daughter of former Florida Education Commissioner Betty Castor, applauded opponents for an issue-oriented race. She campaigned for a long term plan for growth and tighter watering restriction.

"Today really showed that our hard work paid off," Castor said from her campaign party at the Cactus Club.

Dingfelder, 45, said name recognition may have given Castor a boost. Osiason, 54, bemoaned the delay in getting results.

The election gave Hart a shot for another four years. Hart, 54, jumped into the race on the last day to qualify after dropping out the mayor race. He ran for District 1 because term limits forced him to leave his at-large seat. He faced Wells, 45, owner of a computer supply and repair company.

"This is kind of like a slow root canal," Wells said waiting for the results. He later conceded defeat and called Hart to congratulate him.

The election marked the first time voters in areas of southeastern Hillsborough cast ballots for District 1. Commissioners redrew boundaries last year to include Ruskin, Sun City and Apollo Beach. Previously, District 1 covered mostly South and West Tampa.

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