TAMPA — Mary Ann Stiles has spent nearly $150,000 of her own money so voters in November can decide if they want a Hillsborough County mayor.
Two years after that effort began, the lawyer-lobbyist remains the main muscle behind the mission. But her campaign has sat dormant since getting the issue on the ballot.
Stiles' group, Taking Back Hillsborough County Political Committee Inc., is now trying to re-energize, but it has raised no money in the past year. Stiles only last week named her leadership team and steering committee as she makes the transition from securing ballot placement to winning over voters.
Meanwhile, the opposition is on the move.
Stiles insists she is right on schedule. There was no point hitting the start button before now, she said.
"When you're dealing with the public and campaigns, you've got to keep in mind that you need to focus as you get closer to the election," Stiles said. "Right now everybody is focused on the presidential campaign."
That focus, of course, will only sharpen in coming months. And Stiles' proposition, which would dramatically reshape county government by replacing the appointed county administrator with an elected nonpartisan mayor, will appear near the bottom of a lengthy ballot.
All of which means Taking Back Hillsborough has given up what could have been a big advantage: a head start.
Even some opponents, including county officials, say they are surprised by the lack of action. They wonder aloud if there's another reason.
"The only time that is a successful strategy is if you're someone with high name recognition or have an issue overwhelmingly supported by the public," said County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan. "I really don't see wide support for a county mayor."
He has dismissed its backers as little more than Stiles' family and a few unsuccessful political candidates.
"Let him keep thinking that until Election Day," Stiles said.
When they first began collecting signatures, Stiles and her group weren't banking on an early jump. Taking Back Hillsborough sought to have its question put on the November 2006 ballot by collecting enough signatures from registered voters by that July.
Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson said the group failed to meet the deadline. Stiles claimed Johnson botched the count, but was forced to wait until 2008.
Stiles, former general counsel to the powerful business trade group Associated Industries of Florida, says the county needs a leader. An elected mayor would be more accountable to the people than an appointed administrator, she said.
The officeholder will be able to chart the county's future and serve as a check and balance to the County Commission, Stiles said.
A second question on the ballot would ask voters if the mayor should have veto power over commission decisions.
Of the $208,000 Taking Back Hillsborough spent to get the issue on the ballot, three-fourths came from Stiles and businesses she owns. That doesn't count money from her family, or another nearly $70,000 worth of legal work by Stiles' law firm.
The group hasn't raised a dime in the past year and only began meeting recently. There had been so little movement that Fred Karl, a former state legislator and state Supreme Court justice whom Stiles counts as part of her leadership team, wondered if the effort had petered out.
"It did kind of enter a lull, a doldrums, after the petitions were accepted," Karl said. "I wasn't sure it could be revived. But Mary Ann, with her drive, has opened it up again."
Karl was county attorney, then county administrator, from 1990 to 1994, when a prior county mayor proposal was floated. Despite backing from several top civic leaders and the chamber of commerce, the initiative never caught hold.
Stiles is not alone this time around, say those who helped get the measure on the ballot. And Taking Back Hillsborough is very much poised for action, they say.
"I'm absolutely committed to it," said former Tampa City Council member Bob Buckhorn. "In fact, I'm going to send another contribution. People right now are just not paying attention to the issue."
Dottie Berger MacKinnon, a former county commissioner, said the group is soliciting money for a publicity campaign. In many ways, she said, the most important thing was just getting the choice before voters.
"The bottom line is to put it on the ballot and let people vote it up or down," MacKinnon said.
Stiles has said previously she expects to need at least $500,000 to mount an effective campaign. Former state legislator Mary Figg, a friend of Stiles', said Taking Back Hillsborough will devote the energy necessary.
"At this point, we're raising money and organizing people and seeing who wants to do what," Figg said. "It is early."
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Meanwhile, a wide range of potential opponents is laying the groundwork for a fight. While they have not coalesced publicly into an organized group, several efforts are under way.
Longtime former Commissioner Jan Platt, who helped shape the form of county government in place now, has been voicing her opposition to the proposal in various forums for months. She says authors of the county's charter, which Stiles' proposal would change, consciously sought to avoid concentrating power in a mayor.
Beth Rawlins, a Pinellas County-based public affairs consultant who has fought similar proposals in other communities, recently visited the Supervisor of Elections Office for opposition research. She was joined by Tampa ambulance and garbage lobbyist Louis Betz, who is close to some commissioners.
The Hillsborough County chapter of the NAACP has taken a vote in opposition to having a mayor, saying it will weaken minority voices. County Attorney Renee Lee is finalizing a letter to the U.S. Justice Department asking it to review that point before the measure makes it to ballot.
Stiles says she is not concerned. She's got a plan, a timeline and support.
"I suspect any campaign that starts, it starts off with friends and family," Stiles said. "Then it grows."
Bill Varian can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3387.