Politics and piety shared the same roof Thursday night in Brandon when more than 400 people turned out for the Bell Shoals Baptist Church Candidate Forum.
Candidates for federal, state and county offices, 49 in all, turned out for the forum, which has become a staple of east Hills- borough politics since Bell Shoals, Brandon's largest Baptist church, first hosted the event in 1984.
"It's a chance for voters to see the candidates side by side and hear what they have to say and then make their own judgments about who they want to vote for," said Jeff Lukens, a forum organizer.
Joe Cacheiro is one of those voters.
"I came here to try to get to know the candidates and get more information," Cacheiro, of Brandon, said. The Christian conservative wanted to know each candidate's position on abortion and fiscal issues. "Those are very important to me," he said.
Candidates for county property appraiser drew the most attention.
Some of the loudest applause of the night came when Ronda Storms, a former state senator, vowed to "bring out my broom" and clean up the office of property appraiser.
As first reported by the Times, incumbent property appraiser Rob Turner has admitted that he sent pornographic emails to his human resources director, a woman he once dated while she worked for him. Turner then fired the woman, Carolyn Filippone, as the Times prepared a story about her sexual harassment complaint against him, saying several aspects of the complaint, which was dismissed in April, were false.
Storms, who said Turner's behavior drew her into the race, made a brief comparison of Turner to Kevin White, the disgraced former county commissioner now in federal prison. She said a lawsuit against Turner by Filippone could cost the county hundreds of thousands of dollars, as did the sexual harassment case White faced in 2009.
Turner, whom some credited for at least showing up, got the most tepid opening round of applause before starting his address, at least among early speakers. Then he declined to directly respond to the description of his office offered by Storms, who spoke before him.
The property appraiser mentioned his 16 years in office, noting that he inherited a shop that was in disarray. He said he turned it around and that the office spends $1 million less than when he took over those many years ago. And he distinguished himself from his challengers by saying he alone has the background and training to do its business, which he said has been run well under his leadership.
Turner made no mention of the scandal in his address to the mostly conservative audience, instead concluding: "As a Christian, I pray for guidance to continue my work."
Before the event, candidates fronted tables bedecked in campaign brochures and banners, shaking hands and answering voter questions one on one during an informal 90-minute session in the church's Welcome Hall.
"We knock on doors every day, but it's difficult to find events like this where you can speak to large groups of regular voters," said Jake Rayburn, who is vying for the Republican nomination in state House District 57. "(Bell Shoals) is also a very influential church that tends to be politically minded and make its members aware of what's going on."
Elizabeth Belcher, the Democratic candidate for state Senate District 24, said the large turnout of voters made the event mandatory for her.
"I want to explain to people that there are alternatives out there," Belcher said.
Candidates who wanted to attend the forum filled out a 15-question form on "issues of importance to the church," said Lukens, the organizer. The questionnaire included questions about abortion, the federal budget, same-sex marriage and schools. Each candidate's answers were handed out to those attending the forum.
"The church has values about what they believe in but the church does not endorse any specific candidates," Lukens said.
Apart from a few barbs at opponents, polite pleas for votes characterized the candidates' two-minute presentations, with some issuing rousing pleas for change in government.
Rich Glorioso, a Republican candidate for supervisor of elections, cited his experience as a state representative and his military logistics background in his pitch to voters.
"I'm a new guy with new eyes," Glorioso said. "Competence, integrity and transparency" would guide him in office.
Craig Latimer, current chief of staff at the elections office, said his record speaks for itself.
"Earl Lennard (current elections supervisor) and I have brought leadership and accountability back to that office," Latimer said. "I am also the only candidate that has conducted an election."
Thomas Scott, a pastor who is running against Latimer in the Democratic primary, cited his experience as a Hillsborough County commissioner, a post he held for a decade.
"You can count on me to protect the integrity of your vote," Scott said.
Ray Wishmeyer of Riverview scratched "at least 10" candidates off his list after the debate.
"I wanted to get an idea about each candidate tonight. I also wanted to see some enthusiasm. At least four or five of the candidates appealed to me, but now I will do some research on them. I want someone with some backbone."
The loudest applause of the night and a standing ovation was reserved for a video tribute to James W. Pope, a former coordinator of the candidate forum and a member of Bell Shoals Baptist who died in an auto accident in 2010.
Times staff writer Bill Varian contributed to this story. Kevin Brady can be reached at [email protected]