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    Nelson edges Petty for tax post

    Though the lead changed hands several times, Nelson holds on to emerge as Pinellas' new tax collector.

    By SHARON TUBBS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 6, 2000


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    Diane Nelson eeked past incumbent W. Fred Petty in what, surprisingly, amounted to the closest matchup of the season: the battle for Pinellas County tax collector.

    Throughout the night, incoming precinct results bobbed and weaved. Early on it was Petty by a smidgen. Here comes Nelson. It's Nelson for sure. Then, Petty began to close in. In the end, Nelson held on for a scant 4 percentage point win.

    Counting it victory nonetheless, Nelson dined on snacks and lit sparklers outside the Palm Pavilion restaurant on Clearwater Beach. "I'm overwhelmed," she said, high-pitched laughter and revelry forcing her to shout .

    The 50-year-old Nelson won't be sworn in until January, but she won't sit idle until then. "I'm moving forward," she said, her mind already thinking of budgeting and money matters. "I'll be probably touching base with the Department of Revenue."

    By contrast, Petty was solemn after the reality of his loss was clear. By 11 p.m., he was driving away from his niece's house in Feather Sound, where family had gathered to watch results on a local TV station. Petty, a 70-year-old widower, was going home.

    Reached on his cell phone, Petty chalked up the loss to what he deemed negative newspaper articles about the race that appeared in the St. Petersburg Times. Nelson added the final blow with negative campaign tactics, he said.

    In the end, the less-than-congenial race squelched the longstanding friendship between Nelson and Petty. Whereas Nelson worked on Petty's 1992 and 1996 campaigns, she worked against him this time to gain the $121,407-a-year job, collecting property taxes, issuing and renewing automobile tags, as well as other state and local licenses and permits.

    "This is a gentleman that I worked with for 30 years," said Nelson, who started out as a clerk in 1969, then worked up to director of tag and title operations. "I had a bond with him and his family."

    Nelson said she had been eyeing Petty's post since he was re-elected in 1996 and vowed not to seek a third term. She retired from her job in February so she could run against him. She said she believes in term limits, Nelson said, and has criticized Petty for renegging on his promise not to run for the office again. It became the focal point of her campaign.

    For his part in the campaign season, Petty argued he was the more qualified person for the job, having spent eight years at the helm and 24 years before that as chief assistant tax collector.

    He said Nelson's criticism "hurt me and my family." He doubted he could remain friends with someone who accused him of being untrustworthy, Petty said.

    Now, Petty said he's not sure what he will do when his term is up in January. Perhaps, play more tennis, he said.

    Until the time comes, though, "I'm going to continue to do my work as I have in the previous months," Petty said.

    Nelson maintained that it was her hard work and grass-roots campaigning that gave her the win. Her first order of business is to find a way for a real person, rather than the current voice mail system, to answer the phone during business hours, she said.

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