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Sue Carlton: A wired politician unwires in the wilds

Clearly, Mark Sharpe, elected commissioner from Hillsborough County, had been eaten by a bear somewhere in the wilds of Nebraska.

How else to explain why the most wired politician in town — whom you can easily picture tweeting, texting and Facebooking before dawn as he is talking live on morning news radio while catching up on Reddit and LinkedIn, who can be reached multiple ways any time of day, who has been known to answer a constituent's question via text even as the very subject is playing out before him live at a commission meeting — suddenly plunged into utter radio silence?

What happens when the uber-wired gets unplugged?

Certainly Sharpe, a thin, fast-thinking, never-stop-moving kind of guy, was entitled to respite over the holidays like everyone else, driving with wife and kids to her family in Nebraska. But in the past such ventures never stood in the way of getting in touch with him immediately to discuss whether his county really needs Bass Pro Shops, or pending changes in garbage collection, or if a no-kill animal shelter could really work. This is, after all, a man who admits to once hiding behind a tree while hiking with his family in Georgia so they wouldn't catch him returning a work-related text.

Former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio wrote this about him in Straightforward, her book on leadership:

One close friend in local politics is always frazzled. He is tied to his phone, texting and Twittering even when he's talking with others. He wants to answer everyone's question or concern immediately. I worry about him! What he doesn't realize is that he is living on auto-pilot, answering people the moment a message reaches him. Where's the thoughtfulness that goes with being an effective leader?

And, ouch.

Sharpe's reasoning is that he wants to be a responsive leader, and it is true you cannot accuse him of ducking a thorny issue, waffling or avoiding a call or a straight answer. He responds to tea partiers mad at him and fans cheering his vote alike. And he believes some voters just want to know someone in government heard them.

"That's how I'm wired," says Sharpe. "And I am wired."

Still, the words stung.

At congressman Sam Gibbons' recent funeral, the service ran long and Sharpe needed to assure his wife that he would be home in time to pick up their daughter for her dance recital. Iorio was seated not far away. He managed to get off a stealth don't-worry text with a single finger hidden beneath the funeral program. Out in Nebraska, maybe it was the cold or just fate, but his phone went dead, and then there was a comical series of flubs conspiring to keep him unplugged, like the "overnighted" phone battery that didn't show up for days. Unnerving, not knowing what might be going on back home.

And then he decided: "This is going to be fun. I'm going to enjoy this. I've got my family here. I'm going to be unwired." He found himself thinking: Wow, I'm walking and I'm not looking at my phone. I'm talking to someone and looking at their face. When someone spoke to him while simultaneously paying attention to a phone, he realized there's "nothing more disrespectful."

Radio silence lasted the 27-hour trip home. And there he found demanding his attention a scroll of messages roughly as long as a highway to Nebraska.

Sue Carlton: A wired politician unwires in the wilds 01/11/13 [Last modified: Friday, January 11, 2013 7:10pm]
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