TAMPA — In nine elections, incumbent Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist said he has never faced a formidable primary opponent until this year.
She is Sharon Calvert, who founded the Tampa Tea Party, a movement of 1,100 members. They include more than 30 consistent campaign volunteers who go door-to-door, meeting-to-meeting preaching the fiscal woes of government growth and Calvert's antidote of tax, regulation and fee cuts.
In her sights is the District 2 County Commission seat held for the past two years by Crist, who spent 18 years in the state Legislature. District 2 represents an area that stretches from Westchase to eastern Hillsborough County.
While Crist has out-raised her by more than $93,000, Calvert believes she has a strong grass-roots base fed up with government spending that will charge the polls.
"It's just time for those that have been in office who have created the problems that we have to go, and it's time for folks with a different view on things," Calvert said.
It's a view Crist labels as vague while he said he has made an impact in Hillsborough with real programs. They include "enterprise zones" that have given businesses incentives for relocating inside certain blighted areas.
"The only thing she responds with is, 'Just get rid of bureaucratic red tape,' " he said. "Well that's just talk."
Calvert's foray into politics began aptly enough over dinner discussions as part of a group called Tampa Town Hall in 2004. Among her concerns at the time was runaway federal spending during George W. Bush's presidency, which she said continues under President Barack Obama.
"We were extremely concerned with what was going on with spending," she said. "I wasn't going to stand by and see my children burdened with such debt."
On Feb. 27, 2009, she helped organize a protest outside Sen. Bill Nelson's downtown Tampa office. About 80 people showed up, and the Tampa Tea Party was born.
The 35-year Lutz resident and former business analyst and IBM project manager believes Crist is part of the local spending problem.
She points to him attaching an amendment in a 2007 Senate transportation bill that funded a $48 million Tallahassee courthouse that many government leaders have criticized as grossly opulent.
Crist said the entire Senate and House were behind the amendment and it was his role to present and sign it as chairman of the criminal justice committee. He also said the Legislature only approved the construction of a courthouse and played no role in its exorbitant design and construction costs.
Calvert also criticized Crist's lead role in building the $5.8 million, mostly taxpayer-funded University Area Community Center in 1999.
Located on N 22nd Street in one of the county's poorest neighborhoods, the center has been operated by a government-funded nonprofit that Crist oversaw until recently.
"He had said that this money would create redevelopment and an endowment and foundation to sustain this nonprofit," Calvert said. "I haven't seen that happen.""
She said the center's caused little improvement in the impoverished neighborhood.
"One of the things that people are skeptical about today is, No. 1, you want to see results," she said. "You see a lot of money going to places and we don't see results but we do see them coming back for more of your dollars."
Crist said the center has helped educate and enable workers to move out of the transitional area nicknamed "Suitcase City." They get replaced by others who are priced or pushed out of other Hillsborough communities and looking for cheap homes.
"She's attacking all of us saying we're ineffective? That's sheer lunacy," Crist said. "If this is any sign of what kind of commissioner she would be, I would say she would be irresponsible, careless and uncaring because she makes blanket statements with little fact or no thought."
Crist said his work in lower-income areas proves his consideration and experience working with everyone. Like Calvert, he said, he also believes in streamlining business and building regulations but disagrees with eradicating most of them.
"What about consumer protections and safeguards?" he said. "Just throw them out the window?"
Having run his own advertising company for 30 years, he said, he knows more about what businesses need than Calvert. Commissioners have approved his plan to create a large "Innovation Destination" area miles around the University of South Florida and surrounding hospitals.
It would direct property tax money gathered in those areas to enhancements within the same areas to lure new businesses.
"I've come to the table with two things my opponent hasn't (attained) yet," he said. "A track record of proven accomplishments and a breadth of knowledge."
There is no Democratic primary, so all voters, regardless of party affiliation, can vote in this primary, which will determine who serves as commissioner.