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Unpopular as they might be, incumbents win

During the primary season, people readily complained about the commissioners, but at the polls, they voted for them.

By BILL VARIAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 12, 2002

TAMPA -- Hillsborough commission candidate John Dingfelder stood before the Tampa Bay Tiger Bay Club two months ago and said, "Raise your hand if you think this commission is a joke."

Hands shot up around the crowded meeting room at the Wyndham Harbour Island Hotel.

Almost all of the challengers for the six seats up for election on the Hillsborough commission spouted a similar refrain during the primary campaign. Their collective message was almost rote.

Commission: bad, dysfunctional, do-nothing.

New blood: good.

But when the dust settled early Wednesday, all but one of the sitting commissioners up for election had emerged victorious, comfortably so, in fact. The only loser was Stacey Easterling, and she had left her District 1 seat representing south and west Tampa to challenge fellow Republican Commissioner Jim Norman for an at-large spot.

"When push comes to shove, people pick somebody they're familiar with," said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. "People are always complaining about Congress, but then they say our congressman is different."

If the commission contests provided strong victories for incumbents, other Hillsborough races were closer.

Several Hillsborough School Board candidates are headed to a runoff. In the District 4 race, Jennifer Faliero, with 38 percent of the vote in Tuesday's primary, will face Larry Martin, who garnered 25 percent.

Incumbent Carolyn Bricklemyer narrowly missed the 50 percent total needed to avert a runoff for the District 6 seat. She will face Melissa Hernandez, who claimed 33 percent.

Meanwhile, on the state House level, Kevin Ambler beat Jill Collins by a slim 83 votes in the District 47 Republican primary, according to unofficial tallies. That's slightly larger than the .5 percent difference that would force a recount.

"As Tony Dungy is fond of saying, "It may not be pretty, but it's still a win," Ambler said.

Collins did not return a phone call seeking comment on whether she intended to request a recount.

On the Democratic side of that race, Michael Steinberg finished with 45 percent, enough to carve out a victory over Lynn McGarvey, who had 43 percent of the vote.

But it is at the County Commission level where many people were still scratching their heads Wednesday, despite the wide margins of victory.

Throughout the campaign, the challengers for office attacked the board's personalities as much as their actions. Each, in his own way, is still trying to comprehend the result.

"I've been thinking about that all day long because that's what we all heard while we were campaigning," said banker Arlene Waldron, who lost to District 4 Commissioner Ronda Storms. "I'm still puzzled by it."

Challengers weren't the only ones criticizing the commission. A group of activists and former elected officials formed a group they called The Compass Project to educate and encourage people to run for office, especially the County Commission.

The group's ultimate endorsement, which excluded all but one sitting commissioner, Norman, was a kiss of death for challengers.

An arm of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce also attempted to recruit and train prospective candidates. And the chamber graded candidates on five issues relating to business. Only two candidates, incumbents Pat Frank and Ronda Storms, got a thumbs down.

Frank is heading to the general election against former wrestler Brian Blair after dispatching HARTline spokesman Ed Crawford by taking 67 percent of the vote. Storms won a new term after beating Waldron with 56 percent of the vote, despite Waldron's substantial backing from business groups.

Meanwhile, Chris Hart, term-limited out of his at-large commission seat, handily defeated businessman Gene Wells in the Republican primary for District 1 representing south and west Tampa, taking 62 percent of the vote. And Norman, who with 10 years on the board enjoyed a measure of incumbency in his contest against Easterling for an at-large seat, claimed 55 percent.

Scott Paine, a former Tampa City Council member and associate professor of communication and government at the University of Tampa, was co-chair of the Compass Project. He said there are several possible explanations for Tuesday's results.

Incumbency is hard to beat, Paine noted. Challengers must prove that change is necessary, and that they are the necessary change agent.

It's possible, Paine said, that the challengers convinced voters that change is necessary but were unable to prove that they were the answer.

Chamber chairman Sandy MacKinnon said his group's effort is part of a building process that will continue into future elections.

"What has happened in the past 12 months is there has become an increasing awareness of the commission and other offices," MacKinnon said. "I think what we'll find is that there's a lot more interest in the commission, not so much in who's running but in the issues going on there."

-- Staff writers Melanie Ave and David Karp contributed to this report.

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