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Republicans may reign in commission

By DAVID KARP

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 8, 2000


TAMPA -- Republicans appeared poised to take control of the County Commission Tuesday with an upset win by Republican newcomer Stacey Lyn Easterling, who attacked her Democratic opponent for raising thousands of dollars from developers.

Easterling, a former prosecutor, took a surprising lead over Democratic Commissioner Ben Wacksman, who raised about $187,000 for his race.

Easterling tirelessly worked the Democrat-majority district, shaking hands with about 12,000 voters. She also targeted Wacksman by sending out stinging direct mail pieces.

"I am in shock right now. I am numb," Easterling said from her south Tampa condominium Tuesday, where she had a bottle of champagne ready. "I am excited that it is over, yet I'm stressed that it is not."

Wacksman would not concede late Tuesday night.

"Let's wait and see, and then I'll comment," he said.

Besides Wacksman, two other Democrats had solid leads in their re-election bids.

In a countywide race, Jan Platt appeared to be successfully fighting off attacks from former Commissioner Joe Chillura, who spent more than $100,000 on TV ads attacking Platt for supporting taxes that never passed.

In District 3, Thomas Scott was trouncing Joe Redner, the nude-club owner and Libertarian.

EASTERLING VS. WACKSMAN

Tuesday night, Easterling, 30, never fell behind Wacksman, who was appointed to the commission seat in 1998 by the late Gov. Lawton Chiles. He replaced Ed Turanchik, who stepped down to lead the bid to bring the Olympics to Florida in 2012.

A real estate broker, Wacksman raised $187,000 early on in the race. But he didn't spend his money wisely; he paid a New Jersey media consultant $101,000 and put much of his funds in cable TV ads. Most of his ads focused on his accomplishments.

From a ballroom at a Westshore hotel, Wacksman said voters wanted candidates to run positive campaigns.

"The attacks were both ungracious and false," he said.

At Wacksman's party were downtown lawyers, as well as former Commissioner Dottie Berger, who lost her seat in 1998 to a candidate backed by Plant City businessman Sam Rashid. Rashid shaped strategy and direct mail for Easterling, a lifelong friend.

PLATT VS. CHILLURA

Platt, 64, faced her biggest challenge in years from Chillura, a former commissioner who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1998. Chillura's $175,000 in campaign funding came largely from developers and business people who dislike Platt for her efforts to control growth and protect the environment. He spent more than $100,000 on TV ads that urged voters to reject the "Platt tax," which didn't exist.

Chillura designed and then campaigned for the Community Investment Tax, a half-penny sales tax voters approved 1996 that helped pay for a new football stadium for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Platt, 64, did not change her usual campaign style. She raised about $60,000, visited community groups and relied on volunteers to spread her message. On Monday, when most candidates were hustling to meet voters, Platt attended meetings at County Center.

Platt, who served on the commission for 20 years, has only lost an election once -- when she ran for Tampa Mayor against Dick Greco in 1995.

SCOTT VS. REDNER

Scott, pastor of the 34th Street Church of God, cruised to an easy re-election against Redner. The election in the heavily Democratic district was all but over in October when Scott defeated former state Sen. James Hargrett Jr. in a run-off.

"I think we were just wondering what my percentage of margin would be in this race," Scott said.

Redner never really caught on as a Libertarian candidate. Voters remembered him as Tampa's uncrowned strip club king.

Tuesday night, he blamed the news media for ignoring his platform and for focusing on his adult businesses, which account for 87 percent of his annual income.

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