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Democrats feel Pinellas shift in their favor

By Will Van Sant, Times Staff Writer
Published February 25, 2008


Pinellas County Democrats are banking on the national political climate and fallout from the Jim Smith land deal to break the 50-year Republican lock on county government.

Democratic leaders say the sense of optimism has made it easier to attract quality candidates for County Commission seats, constitutional officer jobs and state legislative races on the November ballot.

Victories won't be easy. Republicans still enjoy advantages in organization, incumbency and money.

But even established Republican operators sense a shift.

"Things are changing," said Ed Armstrong, a Clearwater attorney closely associated with the GOP. "Being a Republican is no longer a precondition for winning an election in Pinellas County."

Thanks to a robust GOP machine, Republican candidates have at times dismissed Democratic challengers a s little more than pests. Republicans currently control the County Commission and all five constitutional offices.

But local Democratic Party chief Toni Molinaro said voters are skeptical of county leaders due to their decision to buy land from Property Appraiser Jim Smith. And momentum behind the eventual presidential nominee should propel Democrats in local races, Molinaro said.

A cut above

This year, she said, Republicans' job is tougher because voters are eager for change.

Sensing opportunity, Democratic Party leaders began recruiting contenders a year ago, seeking candidates a cut above those the party has put forward in the past. In some cases, recruits contacted the party themselves.

More candidates could still emerge. Candidates have until June to qualify by paying a fee or compiling enough voter signatures. But at this point, the number of Pinellas Democrats vying for office dwarfs anything in recent memory, when state House candidates are included.

Three Democrats are eyeing County Commission seats:

-Clearwater businessman Paul Matton is seeking Ronnie Duncan's seat. Duncan hasn't announced if he will run for re-election. Calls to his office and cell phone were not returned.

-Norm Roche, a veteran Democratic hopeful, has filed to run against Commissioner Karen Seel.

-Darden Rice, an experienced activist, is weighing a run for the seat long held by Bob Stewart.

Democrats who have filed for constitutional jobs:

-St. Petersburg Realtor Ben Friedlander hopes to succeed Smith, who is stepping down from the Property Appraiser's Office.

-Jack Killingsworth and Greg Rublee, a member of the Oldsmar City Council, want to challenge Elections Supervisor Deborah Clark.

-Randall Jones and John Pikramenos have filed to succeed Sheriff Jim Coats.

"I think it's clear that there are more good Democratic candidates than in at least a decade," said Karl Nurse, a St. Petersburg community leader who helped recruit Democratic candidates.

GOP chief confident

But GOP chief Tony DiMatteo said he hears every year that Democrats feel it's their time.

In local races, DiMatteo argues, voters are choosing a person and not a party, which may shelter his candidates from any national pro-Democratic trend. Also, Republicans are the incumbents in Pinellas, he said, with a built-in advantage.

And Republicans retain the financial advantage. A candidate could be "God's gift to the Earth," but without cash, they're a political zero, said DiMatteo, who expects to put "six-figure money" into some of the local campaigns, a figure Democrats, with their weaker donor network, are unlikely to match.

"I like playing poker with the hand I have," DiMatteo said. "I think we are fine."

Looking to lessen the GOP's fundraising edge, Molinaro said her candidates have been meeting with donors. She thinks the money will come, but at this point coffers remain slim.

"Being the underdog doesn't mean you tuck your tail between your legs," she said. "We are going to fight."

Darryl Paulson, a University of South Florida St. Petersburg government professor, said it's true that Democrats are on the verge of a breakthrough in Pinellas, but he points to demographic trends.

Republicans have reigned in Pinellas since 1950, relying on Midwest transplants who leaned toward the GOP. But the organization has weakened as the movement of Midwesterners to Pinellas has slowed, he said.

At the same time, participation has increased among traditionally Democratic African-American and non-Cuban Hispanic voters. In some parts of Pinellas, Democrats far outnumber Republicans, Paulson said.

Registration data show Democrats have cut the margin with Republicans to less than 3,000.

Also of note, the ceaseless, sometimes comic, infighting that has hobbled Pinellas Democrats for decades has ebbed.

"Now that they have their organizational problems behind them," Paulson said, "it's going to be very hard for Republicans to maintain control in Pinellas County."

Will Van Sant can be reached at or 727 445-4166.

[Last modified February 25, 2008, 09:33:11]

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