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Newcomer joins 3 incumbents

SHANNON TAN
Published November 3, 2004

LARGO - Pinellas County voters favored three incumbents and a newcomer for County Commission Tuesday.

In District 1, it appeared that Republican Ronnie Duncan defeated Democrat Norm Roche, leading 55 percent to 45 percent with 94 percent of the vote counted. Both were running for the first time to replace longtime Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd, who did not seek re-election this year.

Incumbent Republican Bob Stewart had built an identical lead over Democrat Maria Scruggs-Weston in his bid to win a fourth term representing District 3.

Democrat Ken Welch, an incumbent, appeared to win an easy victory over political newcomer Republican Sharon Russ in the race for a four-year term representing District 7. Welch had 65 percent of the vote.

And incumbent Karen Seel, a Republican, trounced challenger Eloisa Esposito, a write-in candidate who filed for the District 5 seat but didn't raise any money for her campaign. Seel had more than 98 percent of the vote.

Commissioners serve four-year terms and earn $84,242 a year. The commission is a seven-member body that oversees a $1.6-billion budget.

Duncan, 47, a commercial real estate broker, celebrated his apparent victory at the Radisson hotel on Roosevelt Boulevard with about 150 supporters.

"I think the first issue, and probably the most important issue, is building bridges," he said. "Building relationships that have deteriorated between our county and our cities."

Duncan said he plans to meet one-on-one with elected officials of various municipalities. "I recognize there's a lot of work to be done," he said.

Duncan, a member of the Southwest Florida Water Management District board, narrowly edged out three other candidates in August's Republican primary.

He spent more than $170,000 on this campaign, while Roche spent more than $17,700, which included $11,500 in loans, according to campaign finance reports.

"I'm proud as punch at this point," said Roche, 42, who resigned as a public relations specialist with the county's Utilities Department to run for office. "We were outspent 10 to 1 and didn't have the huge machine behind us, and we're right here."

Roche said late Tuesday he was not prepared to concede. A large amount of absentee ballots had yet to be counted, he said. He plans on going to the Supervisor of Elections Office today to monitor the canvassing.

Stewart, 66, who served 10 years on the County Commission and 10 on the St. Petersburg City Council, said he ran again to take care of unfinished projects, such as bringing a Job Corps center to the county.

"I'm pleased to receive voters' endorsement to continue," Stewart said.

He also wants to resolve the region's water problems and work on ongoing issues with transportation.

"The real news is there's a lot of work to be done," said Stewart. "Now we've got to translate (campaign issues) into action."

With 355 of 378 precincts reporting by midnight, Scruggs-Weston, 47, said she wasn't ready to concede.

Scruggs-Weston ran unsuccessfully for mayor of St. Petersburg in 2001 before entering the race for County Commission. She resigned from her job as community partnership coordinator for St. Anthony's Healthcare to campaign full time.

In District 7, a single-member district that includes Kenneth City, South Pasadena, Gulfport, and the south half of St. Petersburg, Welch said his focus on the issues paid off.

"I'm feeling thankful the voters responded to an issues campaign," said Welch, 40, as he celebrated his victory at the Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort Marina Cove in St. Petersburg.

He said Russ ran a negative campaign, while he focused on economic development, human services and transportation.

Russ, 44, a St. Petersburg College student studying to be a teacher, said the county needed to do more to create jobs in the Midtown area.

A community activist, Russ changed her party affiliation several times before settling on the Republican Party. She did not return calls for comment.

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