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The staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Confederate flag sign leads to campaign kerfuffle



A campaign maneuver by Hillsborough County Commission hopeful Linda Saul-Sena led to a confrontation at an early voting site Wednesday.

Saul-Sena, a Democrat and former Tampa City Council member, is distributing signs in predominantly black precincts claiming Republican "Ken Hagan Honors Confederate Memorial Day."

Hagan, a current county commissioner attempting to switch to the at-large District 5 seat, arrived at C. Blythe Andrews Jr. Public Library on Wednesday after the lunch hour. He spotted one of the signs and took it to a poll worker to complain.

"I said, ‘Hey, I think this is offensive,’" Hagan said. "‘What can we do about it?’ I think it has racial overtones."

Hagan said he was told by the poll worker that he only helps ensure people don’t campaign within a 100-foot radius of the building, as prescribed by state law. He was told he’d need to take the sign outside the perimeter.

A spokesman for the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections confirmed the exchange. From there, accounts differ.

Hagan said he returned the sign to a Saul-Sena campaign worker and left. The volunteer, actually with the Hillsborough County Democratic Party, claims he tossed it on the ground and replaced the sign with one of his own.

The volunteer, Mable Smith, said Hagan visited the site with his young son. She said the boy asked his father what the sign means.

"He told his son, ‘I’ll tell you when you get a little older,’" Smith said.

The red and blue sign makes its assertion against a backdrop of a Confederate flag pattern. It refers to Hagan’s past votes in favor of an annual proclamation that had been signed by most commissioners for years recognizing Confederate Memorial Day.

The sign includes a quote from Hagan taken from the Tampa Tribune in 2007, when passage of the proclamation failed with him in the minority. "I don’t see anything wrong with signing it," he said, though it puts Hagan’s actual use off the word ‘didn’t’ in the present tense.

Saul-Sena said she plans to file a complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics claiming Hagan improperly removed one of her campaign signs. Travis Abercrombie, spokesman for the Hillsborough elections office, said state elections laws don’t expressly prohibit the removal of campaign signs, though other laws may apply.

"You’re not supposed to take someone’s campaign sign and throw it down," Saul-Sena said. "I think it’s completely wrong that Ken Hagan never has paid attention to this community. Suddenly, now that he’s running county-wide for election, he cares."

Hagan recently picked up a rare endorsement from the Florida Sentinel Bulletin, the twice weekly newspaper catering to Hillsborough’s African-American community. The paper noted it rarely backs Republicans who are running against a viable Democrat but blasted Saul-Sena as never doing anything for the black community.

Hagan lead an effort to rename the former College Hill Library, where Wednesday’s dispute occurred, after Andrews, the late publisher of the Sentinel Bulletin.

"This is just an act of desperation by a desperate candidate," Hagan said. "I really wish she wouldn’t reduce herself to gutter politics."

-- Bill Varian, Times staff writer

[Last modified: Wednesday, October 27, 2010 7:23pm]


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