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Critics say Hillsborough elections chief using education fliers to campaign

TAMPA — The brochure shows a smiling Buddy Johnson, Hillsborough supervisor of elections, underneath the words "A New Vote of Confidence."

But it's not a campaign piece in Johnson's high-profile re-election bid. It's a voter education pamphlet. Johnson is also showing up prominently in TV and radio spots urging people to vote and explaining Hillsborough's new optical scan voting machines.

Such efforts are paid for with federal and county tax money dedicated to voter education.

Even though his own campaign has raised only about $46,000 in his run against Phyllis Busansky, Johnson's name and image are getting a boost from more than $325,000 courtesy of the Help America Vote Act.

Some question how he's using the money.

"It certainly looks more like a campaign piece than a piece you would expect to see advising voters of an important voting change," said Gerry Hebert, executive director of Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C., a nonpartisan nonprofit that focuses on election law. He was referring to the "Vote of Confidence" brochure.

Johnson, a Republican, is not alone among local elections supervisors who have lagged behind their challengers in fundraising. And they are spending the federal voter education money, too.

But Johnson is rare among supervisors in featuring himself so conspicuously in those materials and in buying expensive spots on cable television networks.

The cable ads cost nearly $16,000 in September. They started running Sept. 1, the first day of the Republican National Convention, and after the end of the Democratic National Convention, according to documents provided by Johnson's office.

The ads ran during prime time on CNN and the Fox News Network. Johnson also bought time on BET, TNT, ESPN and a handful of other networks.

Bought 100,000 pens

Johnson, who didn't respond to requests for comments for this story, paid $40,000 to the advertising firm Schifino Lee to devise a voter education plan that included the TV ads.

The firm's strategy also included buying 100,000 pens with Johnson's name on them, costing $23,222.

Much of the money spent by Johnson comes from the Help America Vote Act, passed by Congress after Florida's troubled 2000 election, to develop publications, radio spots and other promotions to support smooth elections. Grants are based on a county's registered voters.

Johnson's high profile on voter outreach materials has elicited attacks from his challenger, Busansky, a Democrat who has raised more than $126,000. She says the educational efforts amount to campaign materials.

Such criticisms are not unusual.

When Pam Iorio resigned as supervisor of elections in 2003 to run for mayor of Tampa, her opponents accused her of capitalizing on education pieces printed before her campaign began.

Hebert said Johnson's voter materials do not appear to be illegal.

But he questioned the timing of the TV ads during one convention and not the other and wondered how pens with Johnson's name and a Web site promote smooth elections.

"It raises questions of whether it's using HAVA money consistent with the spirit of the federal law," Herbert said.

Some elections officials take great care to avoid such questions.

Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles, a Democrat, removed his voice from radio spots after he drew an opponent in his re-election bid.

"It cuts down on controversy with the opponent," said Linda Tanko, senior deputy supervisor for voter services for Orange County. "The supervisors always walk a fine line because voter education is part of their duty."

Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Bob Sweat, a Republican, has no opponent in November but said he never puts his picture in education materials.

"I guess I could, but I just don't," he said. "When I spend that money, I try to get the biggest bang out of the buck."

And Sweat, whose county gets about $40,000 a year through the Help America Vote Act, said he never buys TV ads.

"It's too expensive," Sweat said. "They don't give me that kind of money. I wish they did."

Hernando County elections chief Annie Williams appears in ads that run in movie theaters, but not print pieces or billboards.

"It's not all about promoting me. It's about educating voters," Williams said. "I do have to be very discreet."

Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark does not include her picture on materials, and neither does Pasco County's Brian Corley.

"There's nothing wrong with doing it," said Melba Hamilton, Pasco's chief deputy supervisor of elections. "We do not."

Corley's office used some of its federal voter money for an old-fashioned paper fan that reads "Be a Fan of Optical Scan."

Corley's voice is featured in radio advertising, but the county has bought no TV ads.

"It's not feasible to spend that money on that," Hamilton said.

Some say it is okay

Others, though, see nothing wrong with showcasing the supervisor of elections.

Sarasota elections chief Kathy Dent appears in theater ads and TV spots shown on a local cable news station and ABC affiliate.

"I do them every major election cycle," Dent says.

Palm Beach County elections head Arthur W. Anderson, is featured in instructional DVDs and ads that run on local television network affiliates.

"It's appropriate to have the head of the elections office be the one to encourage the public to get out and … really partake of their civic duty, which is what he says," said Kathy Adams, president of MediaReach Public Relations, the company hired by Anderson to coordinate voter education materials. "I think it's important for people to see who he is."

Anderson lost his re-election bid in the August primary.

Times staff writer Jeff Testerman contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.

Critics say Hillsborough elections chief using education fliers to campaign 09/29/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 6, 2008 2:00pm]
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