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Petty's election motives disputed

The tax collector says he included details of his wife's illness in campaign literature to explain why he is running again.

By EDIE GROSS

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 12, 2000


Anthony Watson wasn't sure what to think when he got W. Fred Petty's campaign literature.

Along with a brochure was a heartfelt letter from Petty's daughter, Jacie Bell, describing why her father had chosen to seek a third term as Pinellas County tax collector despite his earlier promises to stop after two.

Bell's letter detailed her mother's illness and recent death and how those events played into her father's decision to run again.

Petty, 70, said Friday that he just wanted people to understand why he changed his mind about running for a third term. But Watson, an absentee voter who has a Largo address but now lives in the Middle East, said he thought Petty might be angling for a sympathy vote.

"I hope the facts will prove me wrong, but I suspect that Mr. Petty is hoping to gain sympathy for his recent loss and further hoping that such sympathy will cause voters to overlook his decision to lie about seeking a third term," Watson said in an e-mail to the Times. "While Mr. Petty certainly has my sympathy for his partner's death, I would find appealing to such sympathy for political gain to be distasteful at the least and even repulsive when I consider it more casually."

Petty first was elected in 1992 and again in 1996. He said he decided last year to run for a third term because he realized he would need his tax collector's salary to afford his wife's 24-hour care at a nursing facility. The tax collector makes $121,407 a year.

Petty's wife of 49 years, Grace, had Alzheimer's disease. She died in March after developing a blood clot in her brain.

Petty said he thought about changing his mind again and dropping out of the race. But he wanted to stay in the office where he had worked for 32 years.

"I could've dropped out, but I really needed my friends and the comfort and the time to be involved," he said. "And I felt I knew this work real good. I'm going to go ahead and continue to do this."

He said his daughter offered to explain his position in a letter to voters after his opponent, Diane Nelson, accused him in campaign ads of breaking his two-term promise. He said he was not trying to tug at the heartstrings of voters.

"It was not to get the sympathy vote," he said Friday. "I'm sorry if anyone looked at it that way. I can say from deep in my heart, that's not my intention at all."

Nelson, who worked for the tax collector's office for 30 years before retiring in February, said she would not make an issue of Bell's letter. But she said she heard Petty tell the North Pinellas Republican Women's Club in May that he planned to run for a third term to make money.

"He has not earned a third term. He's running for the money. That's not a reason to run for office, for the money," she said. "And if you want something to do with your life, go volunteer. Do good deeds. It'll make you feel better."

Petty said he plans to improve the office's technology and hopes in the next month to allow residents to pay their real estate taxes and car registration fees online with a credit card. He said he just was not ready to give up the office.

"I don't have to have the job to make a living now. I've got a retirement and I'd be fine," he said. "But the camaraderie, being part of a family, needing time to heal and keeping me occupied -- I wanted to work another four years."

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