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Democrats running for Hillsborough elections chief share public service background

TAMPA — As local candidates assert their stances on education, jobs and the economy, Craig Latimer and Tom Scott are campaigning not on issues, but on competency, as each strives to be the next Hillsborough supervisor of elections.

The office is more managerial than political, and each has a reputation as a good, longtime public servant, said Democratic political consultant Victor DiMaio. Both have served in the community for decades in different capacities.

"They've both done very well serving their different areas of expertise," DiMaio said.

Scott made his name as senior pastor at the 34th Street Church of God, a position he has held for 32 years. He's been elected to multiple political positions, including four years on the Tampa City Council and 10 years on the Hillsborough County Commission. He served three years as chairman for each.

Before entering public office, Latimer came up through the ranks of law enforcement. He spent 35 years with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, starting as a crime scene investigator and retiring as a major in 2008. He has been chief of staff at the Supervisor of Elections Office since 2009, when the late Phyllis Busansky took office. After Busansky's death, current Supervisor Earl Lennard kept Latimer as his chief of staff. Latimer has defined his time in the post with the goal of restoring leadership and accountability to the office.

Latimer carried that sentiment into election season, building his campaign around "a proven record" and restoring "confidence and integrity in the elections office."

A ballot mistake stirred up some concern in late July when the supervisor's office left a Democratic primary race off about 166 absentee ballots that were mailed to New Tampa. The office contacted the candidates and those voters in the affected area to make sure the ballots were corrected and the new ones returned.

"It is going to be a tough choice for Democrats in this particular race," DiMaio said. "I see both candidates having many qualities they can bring to the office, and both have been good Democrats for a long time."

Neither candidate necessarily has more of an edge than the other over their Republican opponent in the fall, DiMaio said. But he did single out Scott's status as a minority as a possible asset.

"It's great that we have a candidate who puts himself out there to try to bridge that divide," DiMaio said.

Scott also built a good relationship with engineers and development firms during his time as county commissioner.

As a former sheriff's major, Latimer knows a lot of the law enforcement community and is seeing some financial support from Republicans.

If elected, both candidates said their goal is to protect voters' rights and expand voter outreach initiatives. Because both candidates have such long-standing records and good faith in the community, it comes down to which candidate has the most experience managing technicalities, said Jan Platt, a former county commissioner.

"It's critical that whoever holds that position has experience," Platt said. "It's not a political job. It ought to be somebody who is an experienced administrator. And holding political office is not the key."

Platt — who is not endorsing a candidate — encouraged voters who are struggling to distinguish between the two candidates to find out what experience the candidates have and whether it is an organizational background or a purely political background.

Platt pointed to the mired history of the office to prove her point.

Former Supervisor Jim Fair served two years in the position, generating several scandals, before he was removed from office by Gov. Claude Kirk. A 2009 investigation found that Buddy Johnson improperly spent $401,000 in federal grant money that was supposed to be used to educate Hillsborough voters — just one of several missteps throughout his term.

"That's why having held public office is not a qualification for this job," Platt said. "The qualification for this job is, have you managed an operation as intricate and extensive as this?"

Caitlin Johnston can be reached at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3111.

Democrats running for Hillsborough elections chief share public service background 08/06/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 7, 2012 12:27am]
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