Kuhn workers give big to Brown

The c ouncil candidate got $20,000 of her $76,000 total from Kuhn employees.

Published January 22, 2007

TAMPA - In her quest to unseat John Dingfelder on the Tampa City Council, lawyer Julie Brown has found a friend in local car dealer Jason Kuhn.

Quite a few friends, actually.

A St. Petersburg Times analysis found that of the $76,000 Brown has raised, more than $20,000 came from Kuhn, his relatives and associates at his Honda and Volkswagen dealerships.

Many employees who gave to Brown never before had donated to a local political campaign. Some live in places like Plant City, New Port Richey, Lutz and Clearwater - far from Dingfelder's South Tampa district.

All sorts of employees chipped in, from the accounting and finance departments, to the parts, sales, Internet and repair staffs. Husbands and wives of employees, even a fiance in New York, donated. Most gave on the same day. And almost everyone, no matter their job title, gave the maximum legal gift of $500.

So why all the love for Brown from the Kuhn contingent? To understand, rewind to last year.

Kuhn wanted to tear down a 60-year-old shopping plaza on W Kennedy Boulevard, across the street from his current dealerships, and build a used-car lot.

He estimated that the venture could generate $10-million to $12-million a year in sales, create 20 new jobs and bring pay raises and promotions to employees.

Dingfelder initially supported the proposal. He said the area would be better served by zoning for the upscale car lot instead of its existing zoning, which allows a variety of businesses, including fast-food joints.

But residents in nearby North Bon Air neighborhood balked. They sent e-mails and placed angry calls. They complained at City Hall. They groused about traffic and test drives.

Ultimately, Dingfelder changed his mind. He said he considered the residents' complaints and drove the area for a second look. "I think my original decision was wrong," he said.

In the end, council members rejected Kuhn's rezoning request in November by a 6-1 vote. Only Kevin White voted yes. But the blame - and the anger - fell to Dingfelder. That day, dozens of Kuhn employees had gathered to watch the council hearing in a lounge at the dealership.

Kuhn said Dingfelder's reversal was "very demoralizing" to his employees. Some had already been assured promotions.

"A lot of them felt that they were betrayed by John," he said.

Enter Julie Brown.

Kuhn allowed her to campaign at the dealership in mid December, Dingfelder's vote still fresh on their minds.

"To her credit, Julie did not stand up and say she promised to do anything in the future," Kuhn said. "She said we might not have gotten a fair shot. My employees did take away from the meeting that she may be more accommodating to business. A lot of them were basically charged up. Her timing was very good."

Records show Brown collected at least $14,000 from Kuhn and his employees on Dec. 21, and about $6,000 on Dec. 29.

Kuhn said he didn't encourage or force employees to give. He called them simply a "very loyal and very passionate" bunch.

"We don't tell our employees who to give money to," Kuhn said, noting that many didn't give a dime.

Though he has donated to various campaigns in recent years, including a $500 gift to Dingfelder before the ill-fated vote, Kuhn said he doesn't consider himself a political player. He said he doesn't care who wins the election because he's unlikely to bring the zoning issue before council again any time soon.

"I can't say I'm necessarily over his decision," Kuhn said. "But by the same token, I'm not vindictive. This isn't vengeful. I'm not stumping for her, and I'm not stumping against him. I'm trying to sell cars."

Kuhn and Dingfelder even met for coffee this month to discuss their differences. Of the thousands Kuhn and his associates have poured into Brown's campaign, Dingfelder said, "Everybody has a right to do with their money as they wish.

"I'm sure they were disappointed in my vote. But I have to vote my conscience."

For her part, Brown said she welcomed the support.

"They've been unhappy with the waffling of the decisionmaking process of Mr. Dingfelder," she said.

Brown, 31, initially seemed unaware of how much she had received from Kuhn and his associates. Informed it was more than $20,000, she told a reporter, "I'm positive it's not. You're getting the wrong information."

Still, she said, she promised the Kuhn crowd only a fair shake. "I'm not in the pocket of any of my donors," said Brown. "They aren't expecting anything."

Kuhn employee Nancy Rochester said she decided to give $500 to Brown after meeting her.

"She's on the same page as the people I work with," Rochester said. "If my boss can expand his business, then I'll make more money. It would be good for me."

Kuhn accounting employee Stephanie Rayburn lives in Plant City. Asked by phone why she and her husband each gave Brown $500, Rayburn said, "We support everything in her campaign." Then she hung up.

Kuhn employee Chuck Geary, who lives in Bayonet Point, kept his reasons to himself. "I don't see why that's any of your business," he said.

In his North Bon Air home, resident Richard Reavis grumbled about Kuhn's contributions.

"He's very upset he didn't get what he wanted," Reavis said. "I'm just afraid he's trying to buy a politician. I'm afraid he's trying to buy votes on the council."

If Brown wins and Kuhn's proposal resurfaces, Reavis said the neighborhood will rally again.

"We'll be down there fighting tooth and nail," he vowed.

Brady Dennis can be reached at (813) 226-3386 or dennis@sptimes.com.