ST. PETERSBURG — As the Republican mayor of a quaint township on the New Jersey shore more than three decades ago, Alex Haak was a political tornado — brief, but forceful.
He won office despite his underdog status, stunning GOP leaders uncomfortable with his foreign accent and progressive leanings.
During his 12-month term in Dover, Haak pushed for recycling, roadway improvements, recreation programs and a new veterans hospital amid a national recession, prompting one Republican to publicly denounce him as a Democrat in disguise. It was a surprise to no one — except perhaps Haak himself — when he failed to win a second one-year term.
Haak, 77, has been trying to claw his way back into politics ever since, running for office in his native Holland, South Pasadena and Pinellas County with little success. He has changed political parties with dizzying frequency, volleying between being a Republican, Democrat and independent.
In January, Haak announced he would forgo a bid for president of the St. Petersburg Democratic Club to run for mayor.
He has no base, no money, no name recognition.
But he does have personality. He unabashedly calls women "honey," and doesn't bother to button up his shirt when guests drop by his home. A Baptist, Haak said Jesus told him to run.
"He seems to me to be one of those guys that would go out of his way to do anything for anybody," said Jim Donelon, a Democratic activist who begged Haak not to run and embarrass the Democratic Party. "But as a politician, he is probably one of the worst I've ever come across."
Haak seems unaware of the uphill battle he faces. He thinks that his brief stint as a leader in a community 1,129 miles away will buoy his campaign through the Sept. 1 primary.
"All of them combined cannot even come close to me," he said of his rivals, a mix of former elected leaders, political gadflies, business executives and lawyers. "Anything they can come up with is not new. I have done it all."
Haak's story is classic Americana: teenage immigrant comes to the United States seeking adventure and prosperity, enrolls in Army, fights war, launches small business.
He opened Alek Haak Advertising after serving in the Korean War. A professional soccer player in Germany and Holland, he dipped his toe in politics by rallying for more recreation opportunities in the late 1960s throughout New Jersey.
He founded a Little League branch and served as the president of the local sports and arts groups. In 1972, Haak ran for city committeeman of Dover Township, now Toms River, and won.
"Becoming a committeeman was a social thing. You could go and brag about your position at the Kiwanis, Rotary or Chamber," said Robert Brune, who served on the board with Haak. "Alex took it seriously. He certainly was not a dilettante. He had definite ideas and he fought for them."
Haak was elected mayor in 1975. It was a part-time position with no real power, but he used it to influence county and congressional leaders.
That year, he was arrested for failing to show up for traffic court.
Haak retired to Pinellas County in 2002, and immediately ran for city commissioner in South Pasadena, a position he unsuccessfully pursued two more times. He ran for South Pasadena mayor in 2004, but garnered less then 20 percent of the vote.
"He wanted to do away with our fire department. How out of touch can you be?" said South Pasadena Mayor Dick Holmes, Haak's former rival. "He kept calling me 'Dickie boy' and just saying nonsensical things."
A recent convert to the Democratic Party, Haak said he had no chance of winning the votes of South Pasadena's condominium-majority population because he lived in a mobile park at the time.
As St. Petersburg mayor, he said he would donate his salary to the poor, lobby the state to relocate the capital to St. Petersburg and require the Tampa Bay Rays to stay at Tropicana Field through 2015.
"Action, that's me," he said.
He keeps six binders full of newspaper clippings from his time in New Jersey — they will sway voters, he said.
But how? How will voters learn about him? How will he convince them?
Haak waved his hand.
"We've got time for it all, honey," he said.
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or firstname.lastname@example.org.