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Commissioners White and Sharpe: A tale of two races, and voters who had enough

Two local races in this week's primary election gave us a glimpse of who we are and what we're willing to put up with in our candidates. And more important, what we're not.

In one, voters said enough is enough and delivered a stunner of an upset. In another, they considered what was starting to look like a store-bought candidate and decided: Thanks, but no thanks.

First, on that stunner. For an elected official pictured next to the word "embattled" in the dictionary, Hillsborough Commissioner Kevin White ran a mighty confident campaign. No wonder — a solid core of supporters steadfastly and publicly discounted his troubles: A federal jury's finding that he sexually harassed his young aide, White leaving the county with a six-figure legal tab, White using campaign donations to buy himself nice Italian suits.

Never mind the gutting of public confidence, the questions of character, the taxpayers on the hook financially for his embarrassing behavior. Supporters said White brought home the bacon to a district that needs it badly.

He got an impressive turn-out for his re-election kick-off and raised more than $120,000 in campaign cash. Didn't hurt to be the incumbent, either. The primary was looking like politics as usual.

But Kevin White did not just lose Tuesday. He got creamed. Former legislator Les Miller got 50 percent of the vote. Political newbie Valerie Goddard came in second. White was dead last.

And a lot of us were reeling.

The map of his district shows how far from favor he fell, winning only a single precinct in the middle — an east county neighborhood where he opposed plans for a homeless tent city. Even that kind of bacon wasn't enough to convince voters to continue his headline-making tenure on the commission.

So how come so many of us didn't see it coming?

"I think people kind of kept their thoughts to themselves," says City Council member and mayoral hopeful Tom Scott, a man who knows local races. But voters wanted to move away from the distraction and move ahead, he said.

The message? Enough.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Mark Sharpe was sweating out a stealth attack from his own party because he dared stray on a single issue: rail. Okay, it's a big issue if you believe tax is a dirty word, and Sharpe has been an unabashed booster of a referendum to let voters decide on a penny sales tax for a transit package to include buses, roads and light rail.

Enter Josh Burgin, former Hillsborough Republican Party chief who was running against both new taxes and Sharpe. Burgin got a whole lotta love in the form of campaign contributions from east county activist Sam Rashid, known for putting his clout where his anti-tax interests are.

Everyone batted their eyelashes when Burgin, who had worked for Rashid, got $30,000 in severance and promptly loaned much of it to his own campaign — what, is there a problem? Rashid also donated thousands to an anti-rail-tax group that ran TV ads attacking Sharpe.

But all that moolah didn't change the final tally. A majority of primary voters — Republican, by the way — weren't interested in ousting Sharpe, considered one of the more solid commissioners.

So the lessons from Tuesday? That voters are paying attention, and maybe a lot closer than we think.

Commissioners White and Sharpe: A tale of two races, and voters who had enough 08/26/10 [Last modified: Thursday, August 26, 2010 11:28pm]
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