TAMPA — Ralph Hughes, a guiding force behind the rise of conservative politics in Hillsborough County, died Friday (June 27, 2008) of an apparent heart attack.
Mr. Hughes, 77, made his fortune in building materials and used it to fund the campaigns of candidates who shared his belief in smaller government.
"He was the father of conservatism in Hillsborough County," said former County Commissioner Joe Chillura. "He had more to do with the commission becoming conservative than any other individual."
His passing surprised many friends, who described him as being in top physical shape and vigilant about his diet, though Hillsborough Tax Collector Doug Belden thought Mr. Hughes looked "very, very thin" the last time they had lunch.
Belden, who credits Mr. Hughes with being an early champion of his bid for office, learned only Monday of his benefactor's death.
"That was typical of Ralph," Belden said. "He was a very private man."
Mr. Hughes, though private, had a big say in setting public policy.
His campaign contributions helped six of Hillsborough's current seven commissioners get elected.
"He had the ear of the majority of the commissioners," said Jan Platt, a former commissioner who drew opposition from Mr. Hughes. "He was a powerful voice behind the scenes. Over the years, he strongly lobbied for his positions, and more often than not, he prevailed."
That meant keeping impact fees low, helping nix plans for rail and fighting against proposals to raise gas and other taxes. Mr. Hughes' most lasting impact, said former Commissioner Ed Turanchik, might be what wasn't done because of his influence.
"I think with gas at $4 a gallon, a lot of people are unhappy we don't have a transit plan," Turanchik said. "To the extent that Ralph had a hand in that, that's not a very good legacy."
Mr. Hughes was the gadfly to beat all gadflies.
He took an active interest in local politics starting in the 1980s, when a more tax-friendly commission served. His pet issue at the time: impact fees charged to new construction. Mr. Hughes argued that they priced working people out of homes.
He became a regular at commission meetings, sitting in the front row, so board members could see him.
Mr. Hughes may be best known for his countless letters addressed, "TO: INTERESTED PARTIES (PLEASE COPY OTHERS)," assailing any increase in taxes or fees, along with candidates who supported them. The letters often included his own detailed financial analyses, or news clippings to back his point.
His mailings reached thousands.
As his business grew, Mr. Hughes, his families and associates, contributed thousands of dollars each election cycle in bundled financial contributions to the favored political candidates. His influence spread to Tallahassee.
In 2006, his company contributed $500,000 to a foundation created to carry on former Gov. Jeb Bush's education reforms.
"Mr. Hughes was a man who acted on his beliefs," Bush said in an e-mail.
Mr. Hughes would interview candidates for hours, becoming his own editorial board, before deciding on whether to support them.
Such influence seems an unlikely accomplishment for Mr. Hughes, who grew up during the Depression in Gary, a working-class community outside of Ybor City. There, Mr. Hughes learned to fight, eventually becoming a professional boxer. His son, Shea, said that in more than 50 pro bouts, Mr. Hughes lost only six or seven times.
"He was poor and came up the hard way," said Shea, 47. "He had a high school education and worked for everything he got."
He found trouble, too. In 1950, at age 20, he was sentenced to seven years in prison for beating and robbing a man while posing as a police officer. He had previously been accused of assaulting patrons at juke joints in the Six Mile Creek area east of Tampa. An account in the Tampa Times said that he and two others wore saddle-replica rings to increase the damage of their punches.
It's unclear how much time he served behind bars.
In 1955, only five years after the sentencing, Mr. Hughes started a concrete company called Cast-Crete Corp. in east Hillsborough County. By 1990, Mr. Hughes had 400 employees across the state.
State Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, said Mr. Hughes had sympathy for people who worked their way through trouble. She said his modest upbringing, not personal gain, drove his interest in lower taxes.
"He came from a hardscrabble existence," she said. "He believed making people's lives harder by taking money out of their wallets and giving it to the government was wrong."
Some see a metaphor in his early years. Platt appreciated his passion for politics but said he could be too aggressive.
"He could get very personal and be very degrading, and he did that to scare off people who disagreed with him," she said.
Mr. Hughes formed a political committee two years ago to champion causes he cared about and his company gave it $1-million. The name he gave it: "Let's Make the World a Better Place Because We Have Been Here."
The name states Mr. Hughes' goal in life, said longtime business partner John Stanton, in a written tribute he shared with the St. Peterburg Times.
Mr. Hughes had a favorite Bible lesson: The meek shall inherit the earth. Stanton said he once asked Mr. Hughes why he liked that one.
"He said, 'They won't get it any other way.' "
A funeral and visitation are set for today, but are private at the request of his wife, Betty.
Times staff writer Jeff Testerman and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or firstname.lastname@example.org, and Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or email@example.com.