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Democrats and the Pinellas County Commission: A long legacy of losing

There are two ways of looking at this story, so choose whichever you prefer:

Either Pinellas County has employed some of the greatest County Commissioners in the Western Hemisphere, or local Republicans are a remarkably loyal crowd.

Too simplistic? Sure, I'll give you that.

But good gosh, the numbers are remarkable.

By my count, Democrats have failed to win — or even show up — in the last 30 elections against a Republican incumbent on the Pinellas County Commission.

Republicans have retired, run for other offices, been arrested on cocaine charges and even been beaten in their own primaries, but a sitting Republican commissioner has not been toppled by a Democrat since Gabe Cazares beat Joe Wornicki in 1980.

To put that in perspective, not even the expansion Buccaneers lost that many in a row, and they were the worst football team the NFL has known.

So why is this relevant now?

Because former state legislators Janet Long and Charlie Justice have announced plans to run against Republican incumbents.

And what might they say about this history staring them dead in the face?

"I'd say it's about damn time, don't you think?" Long said Wednesday afternoon. "We'll see if the public agrees.''

To be fair, all of those past elections should be considered on their own merits. It hasn't simply been a matter of getting behind the curtain and punching partisan tickets.

Some of those Republican incumbents were excellent public servants, and some of the Democratic challengers were pretty weak candidates.

On the other hand, a 32-year losing streak?

"Elected officials in this county have not been extremists for either party,'' Justice said. "Historically, we've elected pretty mainstream candidates.''

And, for the most part, those mainstream candidates have been Republicans. They have held a majority on the commission since 1968, and Democrats have been limited to either one or no seats in 26 of the last 36 years.

Granted, Democrats have usually held onto their jobs once they've arrived, but that first step that has required extra assistance. Two Democrats have held seats since 1985, and both reached office in special circumstances.

Calvin Harris was appointed by the governor when a seat opened in 1997, and Ken Welch was elected in 2000 when the commission expanded and a new seat was created.

Which brings us back to Justice and Long. What makes them think they can go where no recent Democrat has gone?

For one thing, there's name recognition. Long spent four years on the Seminole City Council and four years in the state House. Justice served three terms in the state House and another one in the Florida Senate.

Pinellas County voters have also been skewing more Democratic in recent years. According to Supervisor of Elections figures, registered Democrats now outnumber Republicans by roughly 3,000 voters in the county.

Finally, you can bet Long and Justice will use the decision to stop fluoridating the water to portray the current commission as veering further right than the typical Pinellas resident.

Will it work better than previous Democratic challenges?

It can't be any worse.

John Romano can be reached at romano@tampabay.com.

Democrats and the Pinellas County Commission: A long legacy of losing 04/04/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 4, 2012 9:23pm]
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