Al Higginbotham won't seek re-election to Hillsborough County Commission in 2018
Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham, a key figure in county government and local Republican circles for more than two decades, announced Thursday he won’t run for re-election to his countywide seat next year and is getting out of elective politics.
Higginbotham, 62, said he made the decision because of worsening health issues connected with the 1995 hunting accident that left him partially paralyzed and a desire to spend more time with his family and in outdoor activities, a major part of his life that continued after the accident.
He denied that anger over some of his stances by conservatives in eastern Hillsorough County, the base of his support for years, is any part of the reason for his decision.
“I know it would be a hard election, but I know I could win,” Higginbotham said. “A typical work week for me has been 50 to 60 hours. I truly want to spend more time with my family and I miss the outdoors.”
Higginbotham, who has leg braces and uses crutches and occasionally a wheelchair, has been seen more often using the wheelchair in the county center lately.
His decision means there will be two open countywide commission seats on the 2018 Hillsborough ballot, likely generating a scramble of candidates: Higginbotham’s District 7 and District 5, where Republican Commissioner Ken Hagan he faces a term limit.
Because any candidate can switch from one countywide district to another up until qualifying in June 2018, there could also be back-and-forth jockeying as candidates seek to choose their opponents.
Democrats may be encouraged to try for one or both seats because of Democrat Pat Kemp’s very narrow loss to Higginbotham in 2014 and her win for the countywide District 6 seat in November. Among prominent Democrats who have said they could be interested are state Rep. Janet Cruz of Tampa and former Democratic county Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who lost to Pat Frank in the clerk of court race in November.
Among Republicans, Commissioner Victor Crist, who faces a term limit representing the north Hillsborough District 2, has said he intends to run for Hagan’s seat. Numerous others may be interested, said East Hillsborough conservative political activist Sam Rashid; Tea Party activist Tim Curtis already has filed for District 5.
State Sen. Tom Lee debated running for a county seat for months last summer before deciding to run instead for re-election to his Senate seat.
Higginbotham said his adult son and daughter, both home from out of state for Christmas, and other family members “held an intervention with me” during the holidays, convincing him not to run.
He said he doesn’t expect to get back into elective politics.
“I never viewed this as a stepping stone,” he said.
Higginbotham angered both conservative supporters, including Rashid, and backers of the Go Hillsborough transit funding plan with his stances on transportation funding last year.
He was a critical swing vote on the issue.
In April and June, he voted against Go Hillsborough, a 30-year half-cent sales tax surcharge, after previously saying he would support the reommendation of the Policy Leadership Group, a body of local elected officials from the county and cities.
That angered some traditionally right-of-center business groups that had endorsed the sales tax hike.
Higginbotham also rankled some of his biggest backers when he helped beat back fellow Republican Commissioner Sandy Murman’s alternative plan. Murman proposed locking in a guarantee that one-third of all future growth in property tax revenue would go toward roads, sidewalks, transit and the like.
Higginbotham instead put forth a much more modest proposal to set aside $600 million over the next 10 years to pay for roadwork. While it passed and didn’t raise taxes, conservative activists saw it as a toothless promise that would be easy for future commissions to undo.
“He stabbed his most loyal supporters in the back” over the transportation issue, Rashid said. “He was told he could not run for re-election, and that’s what happened.”
Higginbotham's departure from the commission will mark the end of an influential career within the Hillsborough GOP. He was a county campaign chairman for Jeb Bush’s runs for governor in 1998 and 2002, and a regional chairman for George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2004.
In 2003, he led he takeover of the Hillsborough County Republican Party by East Hillsborough conservatives from the Tampa-based moderates who had previously controlled it. He became chairman of the local party until he ran for commissioner in 2006.
Higginbotham was partially paralyzed when a tree limb fell on him while he was in the woods hunting in 1995.
Prior to that he had been an active outdoorsman who ran a contracting company that applied herbicides in agricultural fields and power line rights of way.
He later became an author and motivational speaker. In 2002 he summited White Mountain in California, one of the highest in the lower 48 states, becoming the first physically disabled climber to do so, he said.