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Politics

Smith challengers emerge

Three Republicans, one Democrat may run for property appraiser.

By WILL VAN SANT, Times Staff Writer
Published October 25, 2007


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So far, Property Appraiser Jim Smith has managed to elude any professional fallout from his controversial land deal with Pinellas County.

But now, more than a year before the election, a handful of candidates are emerging to challenge the embattled political veteran for his position.

At least three Republicans and a Democrat are weighing a run against Smith, who was paid $225,000 for his Brooker Creek property, nearly four times its assessed value. The sale sparked a grand jury investigation.

The grand jury's critical August report helped drive the County Commission's firing of longtime Pinellas attorney Susan Churuti and the resignation of County Administrator Steve Spratt.

The report was unkind to Smith, too, although Smith has maintained he's without fault. In an interview Wednesday, he said the grand jury was led astray by reports in the St. Petersburg Times, which was bent on his persecution.

Smith, 67, said he's undecided on whether to run for another term. He also works as a sculptor and said he wants to spend more time on his art. But he said a campaign would give him the chance to clear his name.

If he does run, Smith said he believes he could be successful.

"I have been here a lot of years," he said, "and have done a tremendous amount of good in this office."

One thing Smith can't rely on is support from the local Republican Party leadership. Pinellas party chairman Tony DiMatteo said Wednesday he will not show blind allegiance to GOP incumbents and is out to back those with the best chance for victory in the November 2008 election.

The party's upper ranks include a prospective challenger. Tom Minkoff, a real estate lawyer and attorney for the Pinellas GOP, said he is considering a run.

"I believe we need to restore integrity to that office," said Minkoff, 57. "And I don't mean that lightly. I mean that sincerely."

Also weighing a run is Republican Frank Gregoire, 55. Gregoire has been a private property appraiser for 30 years. Gregoire said Minkoff enjoys a fair amount of support from the party, a fact he's weighing in his deliberations.

Whether he jumps in or not, Gregoire said he thinks he's an appealing alternative to Smith.

"I think I would be a better man for the job," he said. "I've got a reputation for honesty and integrity and I think that's what the Property Appraiser's Office needs."

Republican Michael Guju, a 48-year-old Palm Harbor real estate lawyer who lost a bid for the School Board in 2000, also said he's interested.

Smith's highly regarded chief deputy, Pam Dubov, a Republican, also could be a contender. But the 51-year-old Dubov said she would consider the job only if her boss decides he's had enough.

Toni Molinaro, chairwoman of the Pinellas Democratic Party, is hoping Smith not only runs but beats any primary challengers to become the GOP candidate in the general election.

"That would be ideal," Molinaro said.

Ben Friedlander, 56, is pondering a run for property appraiser as a Democrat. Friedlander has run Big Ben Realty in St. Petersburg since 1989 and is a past president of the St. Petersburg/Suncoast Association of Realtors.

Friedlander said it's time for political diversity in county leadership and that the GOP's lock on the upper reaches of Pinellas government likely resulted in the Smith deal not being given sufficient scrutiny.

"It's clear that change is coming," Friedlander said. "I think the public will demand it."

No contenders have formally announced a run. The final day to get on the ballot is June 20.

One obstacle for hopefuls will be cash. To fund a robust campaign for a countywide office such as property appraiser, candidates must raise between $100,000 and $150,000.

The appraiser, who has a four-year term, is now paid $149,604.

Smith has been appraiser since 1988. He said he's taken his share of knocks in the press, but never experienced anything like the Times' coverage of the deal in recent months - coverage he characterized as a crucifixion.

"I have been in this business a long time," said Smith, "and I have a good, respectable name. But this summer it has been drug through the mud."

Rather than be consumed by anger, Smith said he has "forgiven" those at the newspaper he feels wronged him, but said he will never forget how unfairly the story was covered.

In other Smith news Wednesday, the Florida Commission on Ethics dismissed complaints citizens filed against Spratt and the seven-member County Commission over their roles in the deal.

Complaints were also made against Churuti and Smith, according to citizens who filed them. The commission cannot confirm it has a complaint until it's dismissed or a preliminary investigation finds there is probable cause to move forward.

Smith said Wednesday he was paying an attorney $300 an hour to handle his ethics complaint and that his legal fees during the grand jury totalled $16,000.

Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or 727 445-4166.

[Last modified October 25, 2007, 00:19:36]


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