TAMPA — Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson defended his record of voter outreach and accuracy in front of about 50 residents Wednesday night in a forum featuring two of the hottest races on the Hillsborough County ballot.
The forum hosted by the Tampa Bay Roundtable at Ragan Park Community Center, 1200 E Lake Ave., was dominated by Johnson and his Democratic opponent, Phyllis Busansky. Joining them were District 6 County Commission candidates Brian Blair and Kevin Beckner.
After a noticeably icy handshake by the two rivals for the supervisor of elections post, Busansky, 71, opened the exchange, accusing Johnson of using his elective office and county funds to send out 668,000 mailings with his name and face on them in an effort to promote his re-election.
She also said Johnson mismanaged the August primaries because Hillsborough County was one of the last to report its results.
"I want to make sure that this office is no longer the laughingstock," Busansky explained. "I promise that when I am elected those headlines will never happen again."
Johnson, 56, said the mailing was an effort to give voters proper information about the new voting system, not a campaign ploy.
The primary election results were only an hour late, he said. And that was because of a computer problem, not his performance or that of his staff.
He highlighted his record of outreach and voter education in the community, pointing to more than 300 community events in 2008 including a barbershop and beauty salon vote registration drive.
He told the crowd not to pay attention to the headlines but their own experience at the polls.
The elections office "received a 98.7 percent approval rating at the polls after the primaries," he said.
In the District 6 commission debate, Beckner advocated using county resources to encourage more hiring and business creation in blighted areas, providing more resources to combat homelessness, and investing more in after-school and Head Start programs.
Blair, the incumbent commissioner, argued that he, not Beckner, has the necessary cordial relationship with fellow board members to make things happen.
"You can promise whatever you want, but at the end of the day it takes four votes to get it done," Blair said.
Inez Joseph, 65, said that Beckner's positive message has changed her mind.
"I voted for Blair in the last election," Joseph said. "But Kevin was talking about the nurturing the children, and that struck a chord with me."
Robbyn Mitchell can be reached (813) 226-3373 or [email protected]