Both parties scrambling candidates to challenge embattled Hillsborough County Property Appraiser
The push is on to replace Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Rob Turner in the wake of his porn sending scandal.
Republican leaders in all wings of the party report that they are actively recruiting candidates to challenge him in the Aug. 14 primary. Democrats, too, are seeing an opportunity to mount a campaign for the seat that has been held by Turner for 16 years.
Former Democratic State Rep. Bob Henriquez, who was said to be fielding recruiting calls for another State House run, confirmed he is "seriously considering" announcing his candidacy. He said the recruiting calls have shifted in recent days amid revelations that Turner sent dozens of pornographic emails to his former human resources director then fired her as the news was about to break.
"It's disheartening and tragic what's going on with Rob," Henriquez said. "At the same time, it creates an opportunity."
There is already an announced Democrat in the race, newcomer James DeMio, a real estate broker, as well as a candidate running without party affiliation, Rob Townsend.
Republicans, meanwhile, are scrambling to come up with an alternative to Turner, who has said he has no intention of stepping down or abandoning his reelection bid. Party leaders of all stripes are increasingly denouncing Turner and saying there is no way he can remain in the race without a challenge in the primary.
"There will be a coordinated effort to find a Republican candidate to compete against Rob Turner," said Republican political consultant Anthony Pedicini. "He should really sit down and think about if he wants to put the people in his party, and the people who have supported him, through this."
Turner admitted in a recent interview with the Tampa Bay Times that he sent more than 40 emails containing graphic pornographic images or links to porn sites to his human resources director, Carolyn Filippone, from late 2007 to early 2009. In the interview, he admitted dating Filippone not long after he was first elected, in the 2001 time frame, as he was undergoing a divorce with his previous wife.
The emails were exhibits in a sexual discrimination lawsuit filed by Filippone in 2010 and dismissed in April. In the complaint, Filippone said she dated Turner much longer than he claims. She says she was banished to a Brandon satellite office and cut off from Turner and other employees in the office after his wife discovered some texts she had sent him.
Turner said the emails were part of a mutual and consensual exchange between he and Filippone and were sent during non-working hours and using personal equipment. He said most of the rest of the complaint by Filippone was false, which was his justification for firing her Monday shortly after an interview with the Times.
East county Republican Sam Rashid, a prominent fund-raiser and campaigner, was among the first heavyweights from the party to say Turner should immediately step down to end the embarrassment caused by the actions he admits. Earlier this week, though, he said he wasn't actively recruiting challengers.
That has since changed, with Rashid acknowledging he is actively looking for candidates to run.
"If we let this Republican have a free pass, then we have no business pointing fingers at any member of another party who does something like this," Rashid said. "This guy has stepped way beyond what would be a terminable offense in any other workplace."
There are two immediate challenges.
One, the start of qualifying, when candidates make their commitment to run official, is June 4 and runs until noon June 8th. So a challenger must make up his or her mind fast. Not only that, if it is someone in an existing state office, they must decide by Friday (May 25) in order to submit a post-dated resign-to-run letter that allows them to stay in their current office.
Secondly, it's too late to qualify by collecting petition signatures from registered voters. So a candidate connected to a party must come up with a $9,699 qualifying fee.
The qualifying fee won't be a problem, Rashid said. The bigger obstacle will be finding someone who can raise from $200,000 to $250,000 in donations he said will be needed to run an effective county-wide race through the general election. Rashid said he's trying to line up 20 backers who would commit to raising $5,000 apiece to support an alternative to Turner.
Rashid and Pedicini agreed that Turner will have a hard time raising money given the scandal that has engulfed him. Until now, Turner appeared to be taking his reelection somewhat for granted, having raised only $32,560, far less than most of the incumbents seeking reelection in county races this year.
"No one else is going to give him another dollar. They'd be out of their minds," said Rashid, who has been a particularly strong campaign force in eastern Hillsborough.
"From what I’ve heard in the last 48 hours, there are no Republicans who will rally to save Turner," said Pedicini, who represents the more moderate Republican Party base in Tampa. "Given what's transpired, that leaves someone in his position on an island. When you have people from all over the spectrum trying to find a replacement, that leaves no one left to support him."
The names getting tossed about include every sitting Republican commissioner, a few current legislators and a few who have been out of office for some time. Josh Burgin, the treasurer for the Hillsborough County Republican Party who has sought office a couple of times, so far unsuccessfully, has said he will have to give "serious" consideration to qualifying if a seasoned party veteran doesn't step forward.
With Hillsborough being such an important bellweather in this presidential election season, with the Republican National Convention in town in August, and with political super PACs airing brutal ads, Burgin said the party can't risk having Turner held up as an unflattering example.
"Rob Turner has lost the moral authority to lead that office," said Burgin, emphasizing that he is not speaking for the party, but for himself. "This is an embarrassment for the county. And it could become a national story."