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Commissioner wants to rename award after political activist

TAMPA — Ralph Hughes spent 25 years fighting against taxes and government regulation before his death in June.

Now Hillsborough Commissioner Jim Norman wants to rename the county's highest citizen recognition in his honor.

On Wednesday he will propose that commissioners name their Moral Courage Award after Hughes, similar to another county annual prize, the Ellsworth G. Simmons Good Government Award.

"He was there for the tough times and all the arguments through 25 years, spending his own resources to make his arguments," Norman said. "I think it fits."

The proposal set off shock waves Friday among some community activists and at least one former commissioner.

That former commissioner, Jan Platt, led the effort to create the award, first handed down in 1992.

Her reaction: "What?" said Platt, pausing for several beats afterward.

"Ralph was too political, whether you agreed with him or not," Platt said. "The Moral Courage Award shouldn't be named for someone, particularly someone who is political. I wouldn't want it named after me."

Commissioners give out the award each year to one or more residents who fight government for the betterment of the community. The award has sometimes gone to people known for bucking popular sentiment, as well, and recipients occasionally have proven controversial.

Former Tampa Mayor Bill Poe won the award in the late 1990s for fighting the use of tax dollars to build Raymond James Stadium.

Hughes was a champion of smaller government and had many admirers. He had many detractors as well, who say he used a fortune from his Cast-Crete Corp. to pump money into political campaigns and exerted control over politicians he helped elect.

He was a pro-growth advocate who generally supported candidates who backed his fiscally conservative doctrine.

Taylor Road Civic Association president Cam Oberting sparred with Hughes for years over expansion of his concrete fabrication plant. Her neighborhood advocacy helped land her the first Moral Courage Award in 1992.

If the award had been named for Hughes, she said, she wouldn't have accepted it.

"That's ridiculous," Oberting said. "This is absolutely not right."

But Roy Davis, a Moral Courage Award recipient who had been nominated for the prize by Hughes, said renaming the award after him is a great idea.

Davis' own award in 2003 for work on behalf of farmers was derided by environmentalists, who say he fought for changes that wrecked wetlands.

"Yes, it will be controversial," said Davis of Norman's proposal. "And I'll be right down there to fight for it."

Hughes himself was nominated for the award this year by former County Commissioner Joe Chillura, a close friend. Hughes was passed over by a citizens advisory panel that makes recommendations to the Commission.

"Sometimes in defeat, we find victory," Chillura said. "I can't think of anyone that that award could be better named for. The Moral Courage Award was synonymous with Ralph's character."

Norman's proposal Wednesday instructs County Administrator Pat Bean to ask Hughes' family if they would be agreeable to the idea.

He also suggests having a member of the family present the award each year.

Attempts to reach Hughes' widow were not successful. Hughes' son, Shea Hughes, said he could only speak for himself in endorsing the idea.

"It is my personal opinion that it would be my honor to be involved in that, and it would be a tribute to my dad that I would be proud to be part of it," Shea Hughes said. "My dad did a lot of work in this county to make it a better place."

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Commissioner wants to rename award after political activist 09/12/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 16, 2008 2:29pm]

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