TAMPA — Florida party leaders consider South Tampa Democrat Stacy Frank one of their greatest hopes for wresting a state House seat away from the Republicans in November.
Frank wants to replace Faye Culp, who is term-limited out of the District 57 post.
The daughter of Pat Frank, a former Hillsborough County commissioner and current clerk of courts, she's well-connected politically and socially. She has no primary election opponent. And there's a nearly even split of registered Republicans and Democrats in the district, which includes a large swath of South Tampa and stretches through Town 'N Country to Westchase.
But Frank's work building cell phone towers and negotiating leases between property owners and wireless carriers has created a loud voice of opposition from both Democrats and Republicans. They speak out at public meetings, opposing her requests for permission to build the towers and saying they're a health hazard and an eyesore that threaten their property values. Most recently, about a dozen people testified at a City Council meeting as Frank sought waivers from height restrictions to erect a 150-foot cell tower on the edge of a South Tampa neighborhood. In a preliminary vote, the council voted 4-3 in Frank's favor — prompting charges that her political connections swayed the board. Among the yes votes: Charlie Miranda, who contributed to Frank's campaign.
The cell tower opponents have vowed to fight Frank's election in November.
"Quite frankly, I think the Democrat Party here in Hillsborough County ought to look for a candidate that's more viable," said James Cloonan, a lifelong Democrat and cell tower fighter who moved to Frank's district four years ago. "I will not vote for that woman. I don't think she has the interests of her future constituents at heart. She has her interests at heart. I understand she comes from a big political family and there's a lot of political might behind her, but I don't think she stands a chance at winning."
Frank said she's not worried.
"If I simply fold my tent because four or five people don't like me, I don't have any business thinking about going to Tallahassee," she said.
She described herself as a small businesswoman trying to make a living.
"What I'm doing is simply responding to a demand for service, and it's within the four corners of the law. Everyone who objects to this has a cell phone," said Frank, who is also a lawyer. "There's a need for it."
Some of the work she's done, she said, has even more benefit than simply improving wireless coverage.
Frank has negotiated several leases for cell phone towers on Hillsborough County school property, which in 2009 netted the cash-strapped district $250,000. The leases last a minimum of 10 years.
"That's significant," said Frank, 55.
Concerns about health, safety and property values, she argued, are unfounded. In the end, she believes, most voters will be more interested in what she wants to accomplish in Tallahassee than in the towers.
Among her positions: She's adamantly opposed to offshore oil drilling, and believes the state's spending habits and sales tax exemptions need a review, along with the method of school funding.
"What's going to be a bigger issue? Offshore drilling or a pole in the ground that everyone uses?" Frank said.
Alan Clendenin — a South Tampa resident, Frank supporter and member of the Democratic National Committee — says the number of people opposing Frank because of the cell phone towers is insignificant when compared to the tens of thousands of people who will cast ballots in November. And most important to those who support Democratic principles will be bringing change to Tallahassee.
"If we continue to have a majority of Republicans in the Legislature, we will have oil drills off the coast," he said. "Republicans in this district want to maintain the status quo. And those are the people we're going to be running against. Not the anti-cell tower people."
Democratic political consultant Mitch Kates, who is not working on Frank's campaign, says how much influence the anti-cell tower people have depends on their numbers and organization.
"There's a big difference between saying you're going to do something and actually doing it. It takes resources and time and energy," he said. "If they are people who are fired up, they are going to, in essence, have to mount a campaign,"
It's possible, he said, that the Republican Party will help with that. If not, he said, the grass roots group is on its own.
Cynthia Shellabarger is a former schoolteacher who last year helped successfully fight Frank's attempt to locate a cell phone tower at Coleman Middle School in South Tampa. She is part of the group Parents Against Cell Towers at Schools, which continues its work throughout the county.
"Everybody that I've talked to, they will vote for anybody besides Stacy Frank," she said. "We are going to have a plan, and we are going to be fighting her tooth and nail."
Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401.