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Political junkie

By COMPILED BY TIMES STAFF WRITERS
Published June 17, 2006


A new step for prolific letter writer

Is Ralph Hughes actually going to start disclosing how much money he spends to send out all those letters chastising politicians he thinks promote government waste? Or is he just creating another vehicle to weigh in on elections?

We'll have to wait and see.

Hughes is a fiscally conservative activist and owner of Cast-Crete Corp., maker of precast concrete building materials for the construction industry. He recently filed the federal paperwork necessary to create a so-called 527 group, a political electioneering committee that can distribute campaign literature or promote (or denigrate) candidates. The name is classic Hughes.

Its name: "Let's Make the World a Better Place Because We Have Been Here.'' Its purpose: "To promote good government by attempting to influence the election of individuals to state and local office.''

The group was formed June 12. And generally speaking, such organizations are subject to greater disclosure requirements than are individuals who spend their own money to sound off on elections.

Once dismissed as an ornery gadfly, Hughes has gained considerable influence in local government by marshaling his family and business associates to join together, contributing vast sums of money to political campaigns and spending even more promoting candidates he likes by writing mass-mailed letters to voters and civic leaders on their behalf. Six of seven Hillsborough County commissioners received campaign support from him.

Hughes has been mailing out what he calls "open letters" on company stationery for years, largely promoting lower taxes and fees and protesting proposals to raise them or curtail growth. He sends them out year-round.

During election years, those letters tend to anger candidates who find themselves as Hughes' target. His lawyers have acknowledged that he sometimes will send out more than a thousand at a time, printing them himself and mailing them.

In 2004, a Pasco County woman filed a pair of election complaints against Hughes, saying he should have to disclose how much he spent on two election year causes, but didn't. Others have complained that the letters violate the spirit of elections laws meant to divulge who is attempting to press voters' buttons during political campaigns and how much they're spending to do it.

A Florida Elections Commission investigator found probable cause to pursue charges against Hughes. But the Elections Commission ultimately found Hughes wasn't doing anything wrong, that he was essentially exercising his free speech rights.

Key to the matter was that Hughes produces the letters himself rather than going through a contract mail house, and thus they weren't considered campaign literature.

Hughes did not respond to an e-mail seeking comments about his 527 group.

Chauffeuring, not campaigning

Hillsborough Commissioner Kathy Castor says she has a legitimate reason for missing a series of votes Tuesday aimed at reining in sexually oriented business. She was picking up daughters from camp.

A couple of Castor's competitors in the District 11 race for Congress are making hay over a notation in a St. Petersburg Times story that she was present for most of the debate then skipped out before the votes without explanation. They suggested she was off campaigning and shirking her commission duties.

Not so, Castor said. She said a friend normally picks them up when she has a conflict, but wasn't able to do so Tuesday.

Castor noted that she was not only present for the debate but participated, which is true. She called for an analysis of how the proposed new nudity ordinance that would require strip club owners, their employees and dancers to get a license would be enforced. And she suggested upping the fee.

She missed a candidate forum Thursday, she said, because she was at a commission meeting.

Castor said her attendance at board functions is strong and she takes the added step of holding regular office hours in her commission district to ensure that citizens have easy access to their elected representative.

"I have an outstanding record of attending,'' Castor said. "No other commissioner has office hours in the public. That was a pledge I made when I ran for commission. I've done it on a regular basis, well before I knew what my future might hold, and I stuck to it.''

Ferlita qualifies by petition

Tampa City Council member Rose Ferlita has met the petition requirements to qualify for the District 1 County Commission race. Ferlita collected 1,729 signatures, which have been approved through a random sampling by election officials. The district requires 1,473 signatures to qualify by petition instead of paying a fee.

So far, Ferlita is the only County Commission candidate to meet the petition requirements.

She also has raised more money than any other person making a run for the commission, with a war chest totaling more than $226,000.

Brad Swanson, one of Ferlita's Republican opponents, has turned in 1,365 signatures so far to the supervisor of elections. Those names are still being verified.

Times staff writers Bill Varian, Janet Zink and Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report.