Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Politics

Carlton: A race for clerk (yawn) turns contentious

The race to become clerk of the circuit court — sorry, had to stifle a yawn there — is traditionally as scintillating as picking who sits on your local mosquito control board.

Not that Florida's court clerks don't do critical work as the counties' record keepers and chief financial officers. The risk of having the wrong person mucking up an office that handles everything from marriages to jury duty — or, worst case, using the job for nefarious deeds like fixing traffic tickets — is big.

But this is one wonkish, behind-the-scenes elected office, generally lacking the spirited and sometimes ugly politicking that marks other campaigns.

Generally, I said.

In a 2016 race already raising eyebrows, Hillsborough Clerk Pat Frank, an accomplished public servant who, at 85, is considered a Tampa political icon, faces a challenge from County Commissioner Kevin Beckner, a rising star in the Democratic Party.

If you doubt there will be contention despite the party affiliation they share, Beckner says Frank approached him about running because she planned to retire. This, Frank says, Did. Not. Happen.

So what's the big deal? Aren't contested elections best? Isn't this, as Beckner and Frank put it, a democracy?

Indeed. And already there's a Republican jumping in to give voters a choice. In an improbable plot twist, former TV reporter Eric Seidel will take on whichever Democrat emerges from what could be a bruising primary.

Yes, this is a democracy, not a monarchy. But here we have two strong Democrats with similar politics running for the same seat rather than spreading their, um, Democrat-ness to other important positions. In terms of practical results for their party, long-term planning or even fielding a decent bench, Democrats in Tampa always seem to find new ways to step on their collective tail.

Interestingly, Republican County Commissioner Victor Crist said he also considered a run for clerk when he thought Frank was retiring. But when he heard differently, he says he "backed away from it, out of respect." That sounds gracious, and there is little grace in politics. Plus, Frank would be hard for him to beat.

Beckner, 44, the county's first openly gay commissioner who has made a name for himself on the board, has the absolute right to run anywhere he chooses. And then part of me says: But does it have to be here, where there's already someone tried and true?

You would expect Beckner to do well with gay voters, particularly given his work on issues including a human rights ordinance and a domestic partner registry. But when Frank opened her office doors to gay marriage and presided over a mass ceremony in the park outside the courthouse pretty much the minute it became legal, shouts of "We love you, Pat!" came more than once from the crowd.

Then there is Frank's age, something she has said she is mindful of in any decision to run. Beckner insists it's not an issue to him, and up to voters and Frank whether it's relevant.

She is probably too staunch a Democrat to use a quip made by Ronald Reagan after a reporter pointed out he was already the oldest president in history. Reagan promised he would not make age an issue in his campaign and said, "I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience."

Who would have thought it: The race for clerk, the one to watch.

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