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Busansky waits for right time to attack Johnson

TAMPA — Headlines about Hillsborough Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson that highlight troubles with property taxes, polling places and election returns have been useful for Phyllis Busansky, his re-election challenger.

They're the centerpiece of her campaign so far, dominating a direct mail piece and television ad launched last week.

Still, with just a month before the Nov. 4 election, Busansky, a former county commissioner, is hardly on the top of many voters' minds.

Busansky, a Democrat, said her campaign will pick up steam closer to Election Day.

"We had to raise money, and we had to save it," she said.

She has collected more than $132,000 for her campaign compared with Johnson's $50,000.

But she says it's tough to compete with an incumbent who has more than $325,000 in federal and local taxpayer money to spend on voter education.

Johnson, a Republican, has spent at least $225,000 of that money so far, featuring himself prominently in television and radio ads and brochures sent to hundreds of thousands of voters to promote early voting, new optical scan machines and other election information.

"I got something (from Johnson's office) just the other day," said Valrico resident Brett Lafferty, 46, during an interview in downtown Tampa. "But I don't know who's running against him."

Meanwhile, Lafferty says he has no sense of whether Johnson has done a good job in office.

Johnson, 56, is co-founder of BuddyFreddy's Restaurant in Plant City. He served three terms in Florida's House of Representatives. Then-Gov. Jeb Bush appointed him as Hillsborough's election chief in 2003, and Johnson was elected to the post in 2004.

He has spent only about $23,000 so far this year on his re-election campaign, mostly on yard signs and a brochure.

"I've focused on my job and not focused on anything else," Johnson said.

His campaign Web site touts, among other things, his oversight of the county's switch to state-mandated optical scan voting machines and outreach efforts to register minority voters and preregister high school students.

But in recent years, Johnson has made news for a series of missteps, including moving polling locations without providing written notice to voters and being delinquent on his property taxes.

Busansky devotes 75 percent of the space on her direct mail piece to newspaper clippings. Her television ad takes the same approach.

"There's a great picture of Buddy looking like a little plucked, scared chicken. It's brutal. It's the toughest thing I've ever done," said Busansky, who served two commission terms and has run unsuccessfully for Congress twice.

Riverview resident Richard Stimer, 61, is a registered Republican who says he'll be voting against Johnson because of what he's read about him in the news.

In particular, he was irked that Johnson allows a handful of cows to graze on some property he owns so he could get an agricultural tax exemption.

"I think that was kind of slimy, underhanded," he said. "I expect more from public officials."

But when asked, he didn't know who Johnson's opponent was.

"I don't care," he said.

When told it was Busansky, he narrowed his eyes and thought for a minute. He voted against her in 2006, when she lost to Republican Gus Bilirakis for Congress.

This time, though, she might get his support.

"Buddy's a bad deal," he said.

Busansky, 71, began her career in public service as director of Hillsborough County's aging services. In 1988, she was elected to the County Commission, where she served two terms and championed the county's health care program for the poor.

She also headed the state's welfare-to-work program under Govs. Bush and Lawton Chiles. She says her management experience qualifies her to be supervisor of elections, a job that requires running elections, registering voters and training poll workers.

Republican political consultant April Schiff said Busansky is taking the right approach, both by waiting until the last minute to reach voters with campaign material — hit them too soon and they will forget about you, she said — and by going negative.

"That's what she has to do to win her race," Schiff said. "She's fighting high name ID, and she's against an incumbent, and negative campaigns win. Unfortunately, there's a lot of ammunition out there."

Kevin Riffey, 37, is a Republican who lives in South Tampa. He says he knows little about any local races, but knows Johnson's name because of elections information he gets in the mail.

Busansky, though, is not familiar to him.

"Never heard of her. Never heard the name," he remarked. "She's got about a month. She better get on it."

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

Busansky waits for right time to attack Johnson 10/11/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 16, 2008 5:12pm]
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