Democrats clash over primary maneuver

Published August 30, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - After he beats County Commissioner Calvin Harris in the Democratic primary, Norm Roche will "whip" his brother Brian in the general election, too.

So Roche vowed Tuesday when he and Harris met at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club for a sometimes tart session where party politics were as much on display as the candidates' positions.

Roche eagerly defended his brother's decision in late July to file as a general election write-in candidate for County Commission. The move closed the primary to all but Democratic voters, nullifying Harris' expected support from Republicans.

Local political leaders from both parties have condemned the deed, called the Roche brothers underhanded and questioned whether Brian will actually campaign.

Rather than disenfranchising Republicans and independents, Roche told the 87 assembled club members and guests that the closed primary protected the integrity of the two-party system.

"These are partisan seats," he said. "Democrats will choose a Democrat."

Republican critics concerned they have no voice in this District 2 contest should blame the local GOP leadership for not fielding a candidate, Roche said.

Harris, who is nearing a decade of service on the commission and enjoys support and donations from the local Republican establishment, suggested the closing of the primary displayed weakness.

"I have not been afraid to put my ideas before all the voters of Pinellas County," he said. "I am proud that I have been able to cross that spectrum."

Harris' appeal to both parties provided the opening for one of the event's charged moments. The new chairman of the county Democratic Party, progressive Ed Helm, asked Harris to provide "evidence" that he was a "real" Democrat.

Harris shot back, saying that he, a Clearwater native, was working to elect Democrats in Pinellas long before New Jersey-raised Helm ever moved to the county, and that Helm's new position had gone to his head.

"Ed assumes he is the Democratic Party," Harris said.

Harris has gone along with a modest trim proposed for next year's county tax rate, but both he and Roche agreed that residents deserve more substantial relief during this period of sustained property value increases.

They both also agreed that protected lands like Brooker Creek Preserve should be spared human encroachment. Their approaches differ, however.

Harris said the county should purchase Brooker Creek land owned by the county utilities department that is the site of a proposed pumping project. Roche said no such purchase should be needed because the department is an organ of the county.

Their differences are most evident when it comes to redevelopment, where Roche argues that the commission's willingness to grant land-use approvals for speculative residential projects has driven up the cost of housing.

Harris is less willing to contest an owner's right to use his or her land as he or she sees fit and believes that current county programs aimed at providing below-market housing are on track and having an impact.

These divergent outlooks were on display when Roche told the group he would support a moratorium on the conversion of mobile home parks until more aggressive steps are taken to identify housing for those displaced.

Harris is opposed to such measures, arguing among other things, that the county would invite lawsuits from mobile home park owners that want to sell their land.

Between now and Tuesday's primary, Roche and Harris say they will be attending candidate events and taking to the streets with sign-wielding supporters.

Harris also plans a last-minute mailer. Roche, who has raised significantly less money than his opponent, will be knocking on doors.

"We'll put it in the hands of the Democratic voters of this county and see if they are going to choose a different route," Roche said. "It's up to them."

Will Van Sant can be reached at 445-4166 or vansant@sptimes.com Versions of this story appeared elsewhere in the Times.