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    City gets a jump on '05 mayoral race

    The election is nearly two years away, but the contest is shaping up, sort of, if talk means anything.

    By JENNIFER FARRELL, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 13, 2003


    CLEARWATER -- Of course it's too soon to tell.

    Almost anything could happenin the next two years.

    But this being politics, and Clearwater being Clearwater, people are talking. And predicting. And handicapping.

    Already.

    So far, the safest bet in the next race formayor involves a man who says he doesn't want the job. Of the current crop of city commissioners, only Hoyt Hamilton has ruled out a bid.

    "I don't want to jump into that fray," he said last week. "I'm very happy as a commissioner."

    That fray, it seems, could involve a battle among the remaining commissioners for the vacancy created when Mayor Brian Aungst leaves office. Forced out by term limits in March 2005, Aungst announced this month that he will step down two months early to run for Pinellas County Clerk of the Circuit Court.

    Rumored for months, his decision sparked a flurry of speculation about who will succeed him. So far, Commissioner Frank Hibbard is the sole commissioner to acknowledge publicly he plans to run.

    "So I'm the only one with a big mouth," he said.

    In fact, Aungst confirmed he had spoken privately with Hibbard, Hamilton and Vice Mayor Whitney Gray about their interest in succeeding him.

    His advice?

    "I told them all, it's just not time (to run) yet," he said.

    Last year, Aungst skated to a second three-year term after running unopposed. It was the first time since 1956 that a Clearwater mayor was elected without opposition. Last week, he urged patience.

    "We've got 18 months to shake it all out," he said. "We need to just chill for a year."

    Hibbard, for one, appears to have ignored that advice.

    "I plan on running," he said.

    Gray, on the other hand, was more coy: "I haven't made any decisions yet. I'm waiting to see what happens."

    Commissioner Bill Jonson said he likes the job he has but refused to rule out a run for mayor.

    "Maybe I'm just not sophisticated enough to play the political game," he said. "I'll just see where doors lead me when they open."

    Gray's and Jonson's seats expire next March, a year before the mayor's contest.

    Outside City Hall, Attorney Jerry Figurski and former city Commissioner Ed Hooper are said to be in the running.

    Figurski stopped short of making a commitment Friday.

    "Who knows what's going to happen between now and the year 2005?" he said. "I've always had an urge to go into politics."

    Hooper called his decision a "definite maybe."

    "I certainly think that I have an interest in getting involved in politics somewhere," he said. "I'm not leaving Clearwater."

    Back at City Hall, Gray, Hibbard and Jonson all said it's important not to get distracted by the horse race.

    "I think we need to keep the main thing the main thing, which is being good trustees of the city's money and keeping the politics out of it," Hibbard said.

    Said Gray: "I am not willing to jockey for position for my own benefit at the expense of the city."

    And Jonson: "I'm having great fun doing what I'm doing."

    Ed Armstrong, a Clearwater attorney and political adviser, said it's premature to make judgments on candidates.

    "Two years in local politics is an eternity," he said.

    As for Hibbard's announcement, Armstrong said it's too soon.

    "I don't think that anyone's going to overreact to it," he said. "I would hope that the aspirants subdue their personal goals and really focus on the public policy questions they'll be confronting in the next two years."

    When it comes time to pick a candidate, Aungst said he'd like to play a role with other community leaders in selecting his potential successor.

    "I've worked too hard for me not to be involved," Aungst said. "The worst thing thing we could see would be the entire commission run against each other for mayor. That wouldn't be good for anybody."

    -- Jennifer Farrell can be reached at 445-4160 or farrell@sptimes.com ">farrell@sptimes.com .

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