Seizing on the issue that has dogged Alex Sink throughout her congressional campaign, the St. Petersburg Republican Club put out bumper stickers this week that say: SHE IS NOT ONE OF US.
Sink is a longtime Tampa Bay business leader and a well known Democratic politician who previously served as the state's chief financial officer.
But three months ago, she wasn't even registered to vote in Pinellas County. She has lived in Hillsborough since roughly 1989, minus a couple of years in Jacksonville and four years in Tallahassee.
As she campaigns from Gulfport to Dunedin, Sink stresses that she is no stranger to Pinellas.
"I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't feel that I had a connection with the district," she said, referring to the congressional district that stretches from south Pinellas to Dunedin, with portions of St. Petersburg cut out.
"Would I have gone to Ocala to run in a district there? I would say uh-uh," she said, shaking her head for emphasis.
Sink grew up in North Carolina, became president of Bank of America Florida and lived for years in east Hillsborough's rural Thonotosassa. But she says she has gotten to know Pinellas through decades of work in banking, politics and as Florida's CFO.
Sink provided these examples of her work in Pinellas:
• As Florida's chief financial officer she had a statewide job, but said she accomplished things important to Pinellas such as consolidating several of the agency's call centers into one Pinellas location; working to protect seniors from scam artists; and working with local businesses on matters related to the BP oil spill.
• She said she formed friendships with local political leaders over the years; not only when she ran for CFO but also when she was the 2010 Democratic nominee for governor and her husband, Bill McBride, was the Democratic nominee in 2002.
• She has served on five corporate boards of Pinellas-based companies including: Republic Bank, First Advantage Corp., Raymond James Financial, Raymond James Bank, and currently, C1 Bank. These were "all institutions that are headquartered here, their employment base is here," she said.
As she crisscrosses Pinellas in the final weeks leading to the March 11 special election, Sink said she keeps bumping into people and places she knows.
On Tuesday, it was a retiree at an assisted living facility in Largo who Sink used to work with at NationsBank (before it became Bank of America).
Before that, she drove past a former bank in Indian Rocks Beach and "had this flashback of remembering going in there one day," she said. She said she was there because an elderly woman who cashed Social Security checks regularly had suddenly arrived with a young stranger, wanting to withdraw a large sum of money. Alert bank personnel recognized a scam.
But Sink, who at the time supervised bank branches in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties, said she spotted a bigger problem. "I went back and said we need to take care of our senior customers. … We did senior sensitivity training. We put Vaseline on glasses and said this is what it's like if you have cataracts. We took twine and tied our fingers together and said this is what it's like if you have arthritis. Just to kind of walk in (their) shoes.
"That's just one of the many examples I could give you of understanding how business works here in Pinellas County," Sink said.
Sink was never based full-time in Pinellas, but she said her work as a supervisor gave her dealings in the county that continued as she rose in the bank's hierarchy.
As to other candidates, Libertarian Lucas Overby is the only one who grew up in Pinellas and graduated from high school within the county (Lakewood High, Center for Advanced Technologies).
Republican David Jolly was born in Dunedin and graduated from high school in Pasco County. His mother went to Clearwater High School and his father was once associate pastor at Clearwater's Calvary Baptist Church. After college at Emory University he went to Washington, D.C., and soon began working for the late U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young. Jolly says spending nearly 20 years alongside Young allowed him to work for Pinellas County for decades — although for much of that time, he was actually living in Washington, D.C. He moved to Pinellas in 2006 and lives in a condo he owns in Indian Shores.
Jolly took aim at Sink on the day he announced his candidacy, saying, "This race is about ensuring that somebody from Pinellas County is elected to represent our communities and our neighbors."
Some Sink supporters say she is better known locally than Jolly. Alan Bomstein, a registered Republican and contractor active in local civic issues, said he had never heard Jolly's name until he entered this race.
And Sink herself says she has been involved in the Pinellas business community for some 25 years, longer than Jolly.
Pinellas Republican chairman Michael Guju scoffed at her comparison.
"Honestly, I'm insulted when she says that she has the same contact with Pinellas County that David Jolly has," said Guju, stressing that Jolly was born in the county, has roots in the county and has a father who served in one of its larger churches. "I think she is making a fool of the voters in Pinellas County when she makes ridiculous comments like that."
Sink moved into Pinellas at the end of 2013, but did not buy a home. She moved into a rented condo in the Feather Sound area, raising the question of whether she was really putting down roots or just waiting to see what happens in the campaign.
Reporters sometimes ask if she will continue living in Pinellas if she loses the race. She has a stock answer: She's not planning to lose.
Curtis Krueger can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8232