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East Hillsborough Democrats hope for change in 2012

You might be forgiven for thinking Democrats are an endangered species east of Interstate 75 given the party's historic lack of success at the ballot box in places like Plant City and Brandon.

But the party hopes that may be about to change.

The 75-member East Hillsborough Democratic Club is fielding four candidates for local office this year. The club, founded in 2008, has never fielded so many candidates in a single election.

Gone are the days when Republicans ran unopposed in eastern Hillsborough, said Bruce Barnett, the Democratic nominee for state House District 57.

"We are seeing a change in the demographics of eastern Hillsborough," Barnett said. "We are not going to just sit by and let Republicans run without opposition anymore."

The three other Democratic candidates: Elizabeth Belcher, state Senate District 24; Gail Gottlieb, House District 59; and Mark Nash, Hillsborough County Commission District 4.

As for the historic dominance of the Republicans in eastern Hillsborough, Democrats think a strong get-out-the-vote drive and the party's own research will pay off this time.

"What many fail to realize is the Democratic Party is also very strong in this area. I have over 900 registered Democrats in my precinct alone," said Angie Angel, former president of the East Hillsborough Democratic Club. "We are organized and doing our homework, trust me."

Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans, 286,399 to 235,502, according to the latest figures from the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections. So why do Republicans seem to hold the golden ballot come election time in eastern Hillsborough?

"Historically those districts have been very challenging for Democrats because of how they were drawn but we believe some of those areas are now trending Democratic," said Christopher Mitchell, chairman of the Hillsborough County Democratic Party.

"Especially in this election cycle with a presidential election and the electorate taking a closer look, it gives our candidates an opportunity to perform better than they have in the past," Mitchell said.

Mitchell attributes the party's lack of success in eastern Hillsborough to low voter turnout and Democrats who don't vote along party lines in local elections.

"It all hinges on our ability to turn out voters. We will do well within (Tampa), but those rural races are very important," Mitchell said. The party has already targeted certain eastern Hillsborough precincts for voter turnout drives, he said.

Local Democrats are also more energized because turnout in a presidential election year tends to be more diverse, said Susan A. MacManus, a longtime observer of Florida politics and professor in the University of South Florida's Department of Government and International Affairs.

"This has emboldened these candidates," MacManus said.

The fact that Democrats are also fielding younger candidates is also "indicative of a party that seems to be more active and energized. There's newer blood coming into the party; it's not just downtown Democrats dominating party."

East Hillsborough still remains a tough area for Democrats though, MacManus said.

"It's going to be a fight," MacManus said. "It's still a very conservative, family-oriented part of the county."

Democratic strategists are also buoyed by their own internal research that indicates two seats in East Hillsborough could turn blue this year: state House District 59 — an open seat that covers Brandon, Riverview and Plant City — and County Commission District 4 — incumbent Al Higginbotham's seat, which spans Plant City and surrounding communities including Brandon.

"We believe both those seats are trending Democratic," Mitchell said.

Gail Gottlieb, the Democratic candidate in District 59, is also bullish, pointing out that registered Democrats (39 percent) outnumber Republicans (35 percent) in the district. Independents make up 25 percent of the district's registered voters.

"I'm in this to win it," said Gottlieb, who is running for office for the first time. "I wouldn't bother if it was a seat I didn't think we could win."

Elizabeth Belcher, the Democratic standard bearer in state Senate District 24, is equally assured.

"In the last 10 years there was a lot of gerrymandering of districts that favored Republicans. The districts (which were approved this year) are a little fairer now."

Not so fast, says Kelly Clem-Rickon, vice president of the Alafia Republican Club, who thinks the area's demographics will mean more success, not less, for the GOP.

"It's a God, country and liberty type mind-set (in eastern Hillsborough) with lots of conservative Christians and families," Clem-Rickon said. "I'm glad voters will have choices but the likelihood they will win is very slim.

"The demographics for the area is clearly swinging toward the conservative agenda. They (Democrats) can hope all they want."

Kevin Brady can be reached at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

.Fast Facts

Candidate forums this week

East Hillsborough County Democrats: The monthly meeting at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Barnacles, 926 Providence Road, Brandon, will feature presentations from Property Appraiser candidates James DeMio, no party affiliation, and Bob Henriquez, Democrat. The Democratic contenders for Supervisor of Elections, Craig Latimer and Thomas Scott, will speak along with several judicial candidates.

The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce: The chamber hosts its 2012 Political Hob Nob Wednesday from 4:30 to 7 p.m. at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. The event gives attendees the chance to mingle with candidates and participate in straw-poll balloting. Admission is $20 (Chamber member) and $25 (potential member); $25 at the door for everyone.

Bell Shoals Baptist Church: A candidate forum is at the church, 2102 Bell Shoals Road, Brandon, at 5 p.m. Thursday. More than 60 candidates are expected to attend and will participate in two sessions. The first will allow candidates and voters to casually interact. Then the candidates will gather to speak about issues and their campaigns. For information, visit bellshoals.com.

East Hillsborough Democrats hope for change in 2012 07/07/12 [Last modified: Saturday, July 7, 2012 4:31am]
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