Four questions after yesterday's shocking Hillsborough County leadership vote
Republicans hold a 5-2 majority on the Hillsborough County Commission but in a stunning turn Tuesday they decided to vote a Democrat, Les Miller, the new chairman. The decision came at the expense of Commissioner Sandy Murman, who lost her bid for a second term as chair, with two Republicans, Commissioners Victor Crist and Ken Hagan, voting for Miller over her.
The jockeying and lobbying for commission chairman is almost always intense, even though the title is mostly ceremonial (it does come up with a $10,000 pay bump). But this year the outcome was particularly shocking. Adding to the intrigue is the county’s looming transportation debate, which is expected to come to a head next month.
Here are four key questions after yesterday's vote.
1. Why did Republicans back a Democrat for commissioner chairman?
This was a bizarre move for a county commission overwhelmingly controlled by Republicans, especially in today's polarizing political environment.
Crist and Miller go way back. The two were elected to the Florida House together in 1992, but their relationship has been contentious at times (Miller once walked off the Public Transportation Commission because he didn’t like how Crist ran meetings). Crist, though, said that in nominating a Democrat, he hopes the commission can show its above partisan politics and to demonstrate a united front, particularly after the fractured and at times divisive transportation debate.
Miller also nominated Crist as vice chair, and Crist won unopposed.
"I know I may have pissed some people off," Crist, who nominated Miller, said after the vote, "But it sends the right message that we are board that gets stuff done regardless of your politics.”
But don’t forget yesterday’s vote if and when Hagan announces a bid for Tampa mayor in 2019.
Hagan has expressed interest in running but as a Republican he would face an uphill climb, to say the least. Whether by design or otherwise, Hagan of late has taken positions that would appeal to more moderate voters in the city. He backed the sales tax increase for transportation which would greatly benefit Tampa and earlier this year he voted to remove the Confederate Flag from the Hillsborough County government building, spurning conservatives.
In backing Miller for chairman, Hagan not only demonstrated he has bipartisan chops, but he gave the deciding vote to elect the first black chairman since Tom Scott in 2003. And the African-American vote is an important one in any city election.
There was another bonus for Hagan. He will represent Hillsborough County on the Economic Development Commission, an influential body of area executives in charge of recruiting businesses to this side of Tampa Bay. Normally that distinction would go to the chair (Murman filled that role this year) but in a swift vote yesterday, Miller allowed Hagan to take over those duties instead.
And then there's the split over Go Hillsborough that may have factored in as well (see question three).
2. Will anything happen to the Republicans who voted for Miller, a Democrat, as the next leader?
Hillsborough County Republican Party Chairwoman Deborah Tamargo said she has received plenty of angry, confused and surprised messages in the past 24-hours.
“There was a lot of dismay in the community about that,” Tamargo said. “Some people were totally shocked. Others were somewhat upset.”
But Tamargo said, “no one was calling for anybody’s head,” and she doubted that the county GOP would take any sort of formal action.
Still, Tamargo said she heard from several party members who expressed “fatigue of working for various candidates to help them get elected and then them not following through.” And that could weigh on those volunteers and party activists during the next election cycle.
“It’s not an actionable decision in that they are free to vote their conscience ,” she said. “I will say that this gets back to listening to your constituents. There are constituency issues here and there are feelings among constituents that they were not represented in this vote.”
3. What does this mean for Go Hillsborough?
The timing is a coincidence of the calendar, but nevertheless, yesterday’s vote comes right in the middle of a contentious debate over the future of the county’s transportation network. And the lines drawn during yesterday’s chairman vote are identical to how the commissioners have sided on Go Hillsborough and the half cent sales tax hike to date.
Murman, along with Commissioners Stacy White and Al Higginbotham, voted against putting the sales tax on the ballot at last week’s Policy Leadership Group. All three voted for Murman to win another year as chair. Commissioners Kevin Beckner, Crist, Hagan and Miller all voted to advance the referendum (along with the three city mayors), the same coalition that voted for Miller to be the new leader. (The official vote will say White and Murman supported Miller’s nomination, but that only came after it was clear he had won.)
Murman not only voted against the referendum, she put out her own plan the night before the PLG meeting. That irked some commissioners and Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who felt it was an attempt to undermine the work of the Policy Leadership Group. A week later, Murman lost her bid for a second term as chair.
While Crist voted to advance the sales tax increase for transportation, he said he's still uncertain whether he will put it on the ballot. That makes him a critical swing vote on a final decision likely to come next month. But in crossing Murman a week after her decision to break away from the tax increase, Crist may have tipped his hand on how he ultimately will vote. If a sales tax is going on the ballot, it would make sense that the face of the county commission is someone who supports it, thus the reason to back Miller and not Murman. It’s also a sign that Crist doesn’t seem particularly worried about angering the Republican activists here. The same people that oppose a sales tax hike for transportation aren’t happy that Crist pushed a GOP-dominated board to name a Democrat its leader.
Still, this adds a wrinkle to the fight over how the county should move forward on transportation. Stay tuned for that debate in December.
4. Can a fractured commission recover?
Murman was visibly displeased after the vote. She left without opening the board’s gift to her (a vase, Higginbotham later said), and tried to cut off Crist when he attempted to say some nice words about the outgoing chairwoman.
But later in the evening, she said that though she was “disappointed,” she felt “liberated,” too.
“I thought we had a good year,” Murman said. “But I guess it’s always good to have change and I know Les will do a good job.”
But not everyone was ready to move on. While six commissioners, including Murman, coalesced around Miller after it was clear he had won enough support, Higginbotham still voted against him.
After, Higginbotham said he “felt really bad for Sandy” because she was denied a chance to put her stamp on the commission. And he worried Tuesday's actions would linger.
“It really takes two years to develop as chair,” Higginbotham said.
Higginbotham also accused Crist of foul play. He said before the vote, Crist attempted to tell him of his plan to not back Murman's second term, in violation of Florida's open government laws.
Crist rejected that characterization. He said he ran into Higginbotham before the vote but only said: "We've got business to conduct, and I have a feeling it may not go the way people expect it to go." The conversation ended there, Crist said.
“After things like this people get emotional and get angry and things get blown out proportion,” Crist said. “I’ve always been very cautious and appropriate and never crossed the line.”