TAMPA — The transit referendum in November is certain to play a role in the campaigns of most candidates seeking office this year on the same ballot.
In no race is that more likely to be true than in the Republican primary for the District 7 at-large seat on the Hillsborough County Commission.
The race features incumbent Mark Sharpe, who seeks a final term in the seat and has been the commission's leading advocate for the referendum. Sharpe faces a late challenge from Josh Burgin, former executive director for the local Republican Party, who wants to make the race a one-issue debate.
"This race is a referendum on new taxes in a recession," he said.
Commissioners in May approved ballot language for the November general election asking voters whether they support raising the sales tax by a penny to pay for a new commuter rail system, expanded bus service and road work. Unlike some other commissioners who have said they support giving voters a choice, Sharpe has made clear he supports the tax increase itself.
"I frame it differently. I think there's a small element within the party that is tethered to the status quo, and by that I mean they're tethered to the old leadership of County Center," Sharpe said. "They're also very wary of the people. They somehow think the citizens are incapable of making important decisions."
Sharpe, 50, has served six years on the commission. He has focused on promoting economic development and reforming county government.
He was a leading force in the ouster of former County Administrator Pat Bean, saying she offered weak leadership and was slow to adapt in the face of declining tax revenues.
"Job creation and a more focused, efficient, smaller government," Sharpe said, describing goals as a commissioner.
Burgin, 34, has worked previously as a legislative analyst for the Florida House of Representatives and for two years as an aide to former County Commissioner Brian Blair. He ran unsuccessfully for a state House seat six years ago.
He spent nearly three years in the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan, promoting democratic reforms. In the past two years, he has served as staff leader for the local Republican Party while holding a job with Holtec USA, the industrial saw company of Sam Rashid, an east Hillsborough Republican activist.
Burgin said that as a local Republican leader, he could not stand by while a commissioner from his own party promoted a tax increase.
"To have let Sharpe go unchallenged in the primary tacitly says the Republicans in Hillsborough County agree with the things Mark stands for," he said.
The winner of the primary will face Neil Cosentino, who has no party affiliation, and write-in candidate Benjamin Stutzman in the fall.
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or firstname.lastname@example.org.