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Ex-commissioner grapples with image, record in state House race

TAMPA — He's a former professional wrestler with a Bumble Bee alter ego. After losing re-election to the Hillsborough County Commission, he unsuccessfully sued his opponent for libel. And after a predawn altercation with his son, he was arrested on child abuse charges that were later dropped.

But Brian Blair is a contender in the four-way Republican primary for the District 47 state House seat.

It's something that seems to shock even Blair himself, who has said he's surprised voters respond so well to him.

To find bad news about him, all they have to do is search the Internet, Blair said.

"You guys beat me up all the time," he said.

It started, Blair said, with his role in an unsuccessful attempt by county commissioners to gut the county's environmental protection department. It's something Blair stands by, saying the county department duplicates work done at the state level.

"I was trying to create a smaller, more efficient government," said Blair, who served four years on the commission until 2008.

More recently, Blair has been dogged by reports of his 18-year-old son's arrests. He said his son is struggling with a drug problem.

Blair, 53, is up against Irene Guy, 60, a retired lobbyist for Verizon; James Grant, 27, the son of former state Sen. John Grant; and Tom Aderhold, 66, owner of a human resources company.

"Brian Blair certainly has the best name [recognition] and is formidable with that alone," said Republican political consultant Chris Ingram.

Blair has cast himself as a fiscal conservative, making his opposition to a proposed 1-cent sales tax in Hillsborough County to pay for light rail, road improvements and expanded bus service a campaign issue.

His top priorities as the representative for the district that covers much of northwest Hillsborough include creating incentives to attract new businesses to the state and assessing properties based on nearby sales rather than development potential.

He said he opposes offshore oil drilling right now, but added, "Never say never."

He has targeted Grant and Guy in his campaign, raising their ire with an erroneous brochure.

The piece labeled Grant as a lobbyist, which is false, and blasted him for working for a law firm that represents people accused of sex crimes.

The mailer also says that Guy supports the proposed Hillsborough sales tax, something Guy said is untrue.

"It is interesting that a person who sued his opponent in his failed re-election in 2008 for false claims, only to lose his case recently, would now turn around and make distorted, false claims against me," Guy said.

She said it's also unfair for Blair to paint her as a lobbyist who advocated higher phone taxes.

"What I did do was lobby for opening markets for telephone service and cable service to provide citizens with a choice," she said.

Guy also pushed to increase eligibility for a program that provides financially needy families with low-cost phone service.

In her last six years with Verizon, she worked with the company to bring fiber-optic Internet and television service to the Tampa Bay area. She also managed a fund that awarded about $1 million a year to local charities.

Grant also said he finds Blair's attacks odd, particularly the jab about representing people accused of crimes.

"Brian, more than any other candidate, should appreciate that people can be arrested and the process has to play its way out," Grant said. "Without a justice system that requires due process of law, he'd still be in jail."

Grant describes himself as a devotee of conservative principles. He opposes abortion and believes marriage should be between a man and a woman. He would like to see the state replace property taxes with a consumption tax, something he said gives people more control over the taxes they pay and also addresses illegal immigration.

"If we move to a consumption-style tax, everyone is contributing — including people who are here illegally," he said. "They still have to buy things."

On offshore oil drilling, Grant said that if other countries are drilling in the gulf, the United States should, too.

Guy would support offshore oil drilling if she was sure it wouldn't negatively affect the state's tourism industry. For now, she supports exploring alternative energy sources.

Aderhold supports offshore oil drilling as long as it's done safely. He'd like to boost the state budget by taxing Internet sales. He proposes to address the state's property insurance pinch by establishing a multi-state hurricane insurance pool to handle high-risk properties.

The winner of Tuesday's primary will face Democrat Michael Steinberg in the November general election.

Steinberg believes he stands his best chance for victory against Blair.

"Brian is the most conservative candidate," he said. "I will be able to draw a more clear distinction between Brian and me on the issues."

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

Ex-commissioner grapples with image, record in state House race 08/19/10 [Last modified: Thursday, August 19, 2010 1:00am]

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