Sunday, September 23, 2018
Politics

Carlton: Conservative commissioner hopes to vanish without a trace

Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham will probably not miss me.

Okay, maybe it's the overall attention he won't miss. He is by his own description a shy and quiet man — but also an elected official, which means having your votes scrutinized and on occasion thrown back at you.

A Republican voice on the board since 2006, Higginbotham surprised not a few people with the recent announcement that he does not plan to run again when his term is up in 2018. Sam Rashid, a powerful east county political activist, said Higginbotham "was told he could not run for re-election" after he displeased conservative loyal supporters.

Say what you like (or don't) about Higginbotham's politics, but he has nothing but kind words for Rashid. This, he says, was a decision about health and family.

At 62, he will tell you he never really intended to do this, to hold office, but life takes unexpected turns. He was a businessman who had just volunteered for Jeb Bush's campaign 22 years ago when he suffered the most freakish of accidents: He was on a hunting trip and a freshly killed deer was being hung from a tree for skinning. The tree broke from the deer's weight and fell on him, leaving him partially paralyzed.

Today he gets around on crutches, though in another twist this has not stopped him from scaling some very high mountains, if more slowly than other climbers. He says he is in good health, but a spinal injury takes its toll. "My body's just wearing out at a different pace," he says. So it will soon be time for pursuits quieter than those often-lively commission meetings, for working with the Native Plant Society and seeing to the bluebird houses and vegetables growing out on 15 acres in rural Plant City.

He calls himself "probably the most boring commissioner that will ever hold a seat here."

Will it be hard to leave?

"No," he says pleasantly.

He was promoting a self-published book about his accident, faith and recovery when the bombastic Ronda Storms left what was then a seriously contentious County Commission. He decided to run for her seat. While commissioners these days still get cranky on occasion, they practically refer to one another as "the distinguished gentleman from Carrollwood" or "her ladyship of South Tampa." Higginbotham sounds proud of the civility.

He probably got his loudest boos when he voted against a transit tax after indicating he would support it — a move some saw as political. He insists he lost faith in a process with too much going on behind the scenes. And probably his greatest regret on the commission "is I did not articulate my position better."

We are talking over breakfast at an unassuming restaurant he favors behind a gas station. I ask what he thinks of President Trump so far.

Pause.

"It makes me glad that Devon (his wife) and I grow our own vegetables," he says, straight-faced.

So no, he has no designs on a building with his name on it. Plants and vegetables, bluebirds and family will be enough.

"If I can leave in two years without a trace," he says, "I'll be happy."

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