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Democrat switches parties and gets elected to Pinellas commission as a Republican

Brian Roche, third from left, breaks down in tears as brother Norm Roche gets a congratulatory call in his garage Tuesday. While his opponent, veteran Calvin Harris, spent six times as much, “We were doing it on a shoestring,” Norm Roche said.


Brian Roche, third from left, breaks down in tears as brother Norm Roche gets a congratulatory call in his garage Tuesday. While his opponent, veteran Calvin Harris, spent six times as much, “We were doing it on a shoestring,” Norm Roche said.

In Pinellas County in 2010, this is what it took to defeat Calvin Harris, a 13-year Democratic commissioner who spent six times as much campaign money as his opponent:

It took Norm Roche, a three-time election loser who headquartered his campaign in a garage where he also stored golf clubs and a punching bag. It took a candidate so low-tech that he rifled through phone books to cold call potential voters, instead of relying on the computerized lists most candidates use.

It also took one new letter after his name — R. After losing three commission races as a Democrat, Roche, 48, won this time by running as a Republican in a year of widespread frustration over incumbents, taxes and Democrats.

"I think Norm's decision to change party affiliation was a very smart political calculation," said attorney and lobbyist Ed Armstrong, who supported Harris. "I don't think Calvin could have done anything to overcome the Republican tsunami at every level of government, federal, state, local."

Roche dismissed the role of his party affiliation. Instead, he said the county "had a far more engaged electorate." Unlike past years, people contacted him about the how and why of his policies, he said. He was getting e-mails on his BlackBerry until the close of polling places Tuesday.

"I don't think there was any trickery to it. It was democracy," Roche said.

Asked for his take, Harris said Wednesday that "sometimes you just can't explain things. I'm not looking back. I had a great career on the commission. I really enjoyed it. I think that I made a difference. But we all serve at the behest of the voters."

Harris supporter and fundraiser Alan Bomstein had this to say: "I don't think Calvin's campaigned any less this time. I think it's citizen anger. I think they're angry at anything that smells like a D."

Harris, 69, was the first African-American elected to the County Commission.

While Harris enjoyed a 12,500-vote advantage in state Rep. Darryl Rouson's district in St. Petersburg, he lost in two other hotly contested swing districts, where Republicans Larry Ahern and Jeff Brandes ousted incumbent House Democrats. He also got clobbered in Republican-rich north Pinellas.

Some Harris allies said they tried to warn him of the GOP tsunami headed his way.

State Rep. Bill Heller, D-St. Petersburg, saw Harris and Roche speak at an October candidate forum. "People sitting next to me said after they spoke that Norm did better," Heller said. "With everything else going on, Norm had a different kind of energy, and it made a difference."

Pinellas Democratic Party chairman Ramsay McLauchlan said Harris needed a better strategy.

"The reality is he had run the kind of thoughtful, low-key campaign that he's run before. He had always won before so he ran that way… In hindsight, that strategy didn't work.

"Calvin never once stood up and said the Republicans on the county commission did 'X,' and I fought against it."

Harris said campaign tactics weren't the problem.

"We walked precincts. We did targeted mailings. We did Internet blasts. We did television. And none of that mattered. It was that people were not going to vote for Democrats. And they only voted for incumbents if they were Republicans."

Ironically, Harris was such a moderate politician that Republicans tried to persuade him to switch parties early in his political career. He also won the support of many local Republican officials, including St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and newly elected state Sen. Jack Latvala.

Roche campaigned on promises to make county government more transparent. He said he wants to revamp the way the county budgets, saying Pinellas needs to stop basing its spending on revenue and base it on "only what's needed."

"Those are really at the core of it. Let's get back to a real balanced budget," Roche said after his victory Tuesday.

Instead of running a TV ad or sending a mailer to voters, Roche called people he knew. He attended any public meeting where he could speak. "We were doing it on a shoestring," he said.

On Wednesday, he spent the day returning calls and e-mails, and coordinating the future with county officials. He said he will quit his job as a safety and marketing director with a geotechnical firm, promising to focus on the county. Commissioners are paid $90,000 a year.

Once he's sworn in Nov. 16, Roche will face a board he has often chastised. Other commissioners said he will face a learning curve and adjustment, which he acknowledged. He said he serves his critics now, too.

Times photojournalist Lara Cerri and staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.

Mail voting continues to reign in Pinellas

The majority of Pinellas residents voted before Election Day, according to unofficial results from the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office. More than 159,000 people voted by mail compared with nearly 141,000 who voted at the polls. Roughly 3 percent, or 10,000 people, voted before Election Day at early voting sites. Overall turnout was at 51 percent, or 309,856 of Pinellas' 604,912 registered voters. In the 2006 midterms, 47 percent of registered voters turned out. The numbers released Wednesday don't include provisional ballots, and the election's office will continue to count all federal votes from overseas ballots that arrive in the next 10 days.

Democrat switches parties and gets elected to Pinellas commission as a Republican 11/03/10 [Last modified: Thursday, November 4, 2010 12:06am]
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