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Hillsborough Elections Supervisor Phyllis Busansky dies

TAMPA — Hillsborough County Elections Supervisor Phyllis Busansky was found dead in her hotel room this morning during a conference of Florida elections supervisors in St. Augustine, officials said.

Busansky, a Democrat and former two-term Hillsborough County commissioner, became elections supervisor after defeating Republican incumbent Buddy Johnson in November.

She was 72 and in seemingly good condition before she died, according to those close to her.

Hillsborough supervisor of elections spokeswoman Sigrid Tidmore was with Busansky last night before she went to sleep about 8 or 9 p.m. Busansky was not complaining of any pain, she said. When Busansky didn't show up to this morning's conference meetings and did not respond to phone calls, hotel security went to check on her and found her dead, Tidmore said.

St. Johns County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Chuck Mulligan said his deputies responded to a call around 9 a.m. from the Renaissance Resort at World Golf Village. Busansky was found on the floor of her hotel room with no trauma to her body, he said, and there didn't appear to be any foul play or struggle. She appeared to have died of natural causes.

Busansky's physician advised detectives that her death certificate was to be signed, as she had an "extensive medical history," according to authorities.

Busansky had a small, malignant tumor removed from her lung in August 2007, according to St. Petersburg Times archives. The tumor was found and removed early, and Busansky never had to go through chemotherapy or radiation. No other health issues are known.

"Everyone is in a state of shock," Tidmore said. "She's been vibrant and healthy and talking about what's next."

Busansky was married and had three grown children and nine grandchildren. Her son, Ed Busansky, said the family was not ready to comment.

Jennifer Edwards, president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, said the conference will continue, and the organization will honor Busansky at its annual dinner Wednesday night.

County Administrator Pat Bean announced the news to county commissioners this morning, and word spread quickly. City Council chairman Tom Scott announced it at a City Council water workshop about 10:20 a.m., calling for a moment of silence.

The cavernous first floor of County Center was noticeably quieter Tuesday morning as word of Busansky's death spread.

That was in contrast to the woman whose loud, Northeast-accented voice could often be heard there, shouting greetings or describing with enthusiasm the changes under way in her office.

County Commissioner Kevin Beckner recalled getting to know Busansky as the fellow Democrats campaigned last year, together succeeding in knocking off incumbents to win office.

"I am grief-stricken from a personal and professional standpoint," Beckner said. "She always gave me her open and honest opinion about what she thought but never told me what I needed to do."

Then he broke a smile as he performed a spot-on imitation of Busansky on the phone, asking if this was her "favorite" so-and-so and describing her day as "fabulous."

Commissioner Rose Ferlita heard that Busansky's death may have been cardiac-related, though that hasn't been confirmed.

"My God, she worked so hard for this victory," Ferlita said of Busansky's win against Johnson. "She was there for a purpose."

Ferlita thought Busansky's office would be in good hands.

"I certainly trust that our governor will take his time and be very conscientious" if he should pick an appointee, she said.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio described Busansky's death as a great loss to the community.

"Here she was, embarking on a new challenge, one she was perfectly suited for," Iorio said in an interview today. "She saw a lot of potential in the office. When people have faith in the electoral office, then a lot is possible in the community. You need that faith."

Jim Norman, the only remaining commissioner who served with Busansky, echoed others in saying he was shocked by the news.

"I was really looking forward to seeing the positive things she was doing with the supervisor of elections office," Norman said. "I thought she was really making some professional changes."

But he keyed in on the gregarious nature of Busansky, who invariably shouted greetings from half a block way — not "Hi, Jim" or "commissioner" but, "Hey, Norman!"

"She was just an eccentric, fun lady," Norman said. "Even though she was a D and I am an R, with Phyllis, you just dropped all that."

From U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor: "Phyllis will be well remembered in our hearts for her brave leadership, for her open, gregarious style and for her ability to fix problems that were tough to tackle."

Busansky was from Connecticut and had lived in Tampa for almost 30 years. She was the head of Hillsborough County's aging services before being elected to the County Commission in 1988. She served two terms and led the creation of the county's health care program for the poor.

She ran for Congress in 2006, losing to Republican Gus Bilirakis. When she announced in 2005 that she was running, she told the Times that she felt a need to serve the public. "I can't read about Congress anymore and just not do anything."

She served as head of the state's Welfare-to-Work program under two Florida governors, Democrat Lawton Chiles and Republican Jeb Bush. She was on the faculty of the School of Public Health at Columbia University, teaching leadership and coalition building, and had served on the Hillsborough County Hospital Authority.

Jan Platt, a former Hillsborough County commissioner, called Busansky "one of a kind."

"She was no-nonsense," Platt said. "That she took on the supervisor of elections office when everyone knew that office was a mess, that took so much courage."

Ed Turanchik, another former commissioner and now a Tampa developer, agreed. "She marked the beginning of a new era."

He recalled working with Busansky on the County Commission and said her "crowning achievement" was her work on the county's health care program. "She was its champion," Turanchik said.

And when she was elected to take over as elections supervisor, he said he was sure she would restore confidence in the office, riddled with debt and controversy under Johnson.

"A lot of people regard the supervisor's office as the backwater of politics, but she viewed it as the protector of our rights," Turanchik said.

Fred Karl, former Florida Supreme Court justice and Hillsborough County administrator, said "her passing will leave a tremendous hole in the community."

Jennifer Davis, spokeswoman for Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning's office, said statutes require a gubernatorial appointment to replace Busansky. The appointed supervisor will serve until the general election in 2010, Davis said, and in 2012 a new supervisor will be elected to a four-year term.

At the Supervisor of Elections Office on Falkenburg Road, staff members sat quietly in their cubicles, fielding calls and questions about their leader's death.

Administration director Tim Bridge said the office found out about 9:45 a.m. and has been in a state of shock ever since. Bridge said Busanksy seemed fine and healthy when he last saw her Friday.

"She was always very positive, always moving forward, straight ahead," he said. "It's a hard day, a very hard day."

The office will remain open today, with a flag outside flying at half-staff.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds and staff writers Bill Varian, Rebecca Catalanello and Jeff Testerman contributed to this report.

Hillsborough Elections Supervisor Phyllis Busansky dies 06/23/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 27, 2009 11:25am]
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