TAMPA — Community activist Gerald White stood before Hillsborough County commissioners last month literally begging them.
Do something to fight a proposal on November's ballot that will create an elected mayor, White implored the board. If the measure passes, he said, African-Americans will see their voices weakened by a concentration of power in one elected official.
"I am afraid and I'm scared that black people will be hurt by a county mayor taking effect," White said. "We will lose political power."
White's concern has risen as criticism No. 1 so far as the fledgling mayoral effort gets organized. It promises to be one of the main continuing points of debate in coming months.
Critics say an elected mayor will wield most of the political might in Hillsborough County in the future. And Hillsborough voters have little history of electing blacks in countywide elections — none in at-large commission races, for instance.
As importantly, they argue that the mayor, particularly one with veto power over commission decisions, would eclipse that board. That includes the District 3 seat, which represents much of central and east Tampa and has produced black commissioners.
"That particular commissioner will have less power if a county mayor is enacted," said Curtis Stokes, president of the Hillsborough branch of the NAACP, which is opposing the measure.
A group called Taking Back Hillsborough County is seeking voter approval to replace the county's appointed county administrator with an elected, nonpartisan mayor. A second ballot question asks whether the mayor should be able to veto commission decisions. A veto could be overridden.
Group organizer Mary Ann Stiles describes the minority voice issue as a smokescreen. She says Hillsborough residents would simply get one more person to elect, someone accountable to them, not commissioners.
A mayor would be hard-pressed to ignore any bloc of voters and expect to get elected, she argues. While the track record is limited, blacks have won countywide political seats, she said. Hispanics have fared better.
"And there certainly hasn't been an African-American appointed to the county administrator, has there?" Stiles said.
No there has not, though commissioners did appoint Renee Lee, who is black, as their county attorney in 2004.
On Wednesday, Lee will seek to grant White's request. She will present commissioners with a draft letter to the U.S. Justice Department asking it to review the ballot initiative. Commission Chairman Ken Hagan will be asked to sign it.
Hillsborough is one of five counties in Florida that face Justice Department supervision of how it conducts elections under the Voting Rights Act, due to past discriminatory practices. The Justice Department must approve changes to the way Hillsborough carries out elections.
However, the Justice Department has said it only reviews changes proposed by government in advance of elections. It won't examine a citizen-driven initiative unless it passes, before it is implemented.
Commissioner Jim Norman, who has pressed the issue on White's behalf, says it should be resolved before the public votes. And Lee's proposed letter requests just that from Justice.
"We were known as sort of a racist kind of county," Norman said. "If that's going to be the issue, we should get it out of the way. I don't want us to have that tag on us."
Popular perception holds that Hillsborough County is under Justice supervision due to discrimination against blacks. Actually, Hillsborough was one of several hundred jurisdictions brought under Justice review in the 1970s for possible discrimination against Hispanics.
The Justice Department held that Hillsborough failed to provide Spanish language ballots and voter information, though at least 5 percent of voters are Hispanic.
Once under supervision, the Justice Department reviews voting changes for how they affect all minorities.
It shouldn't matter one way or another, say supporters of the mayoral initiative, including some black civic activists.
"I'm sensitive to the concerns and remarks from the minority community," said Eric Brown, who owns the information technology firm ROI Consulting. "If you look at how the county mayor is going to be structured, in terms of county commissioners, that's not going to change. You're still going to have representation from the minority community."
He argues that few blacks have run for countywide races. And he argues that the success of Barack Obama's Democratic presidential campaign shows times are changing.
That's a theme tapped by retired banker Bob Samuels.
"We all understand the unfairness of what used to be," he said. "But we can't keep falling back on that."
Times researches Carolyn Edds and Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.