Monday, February 19, 2018
Politics

Pinellas County Commissioner Norm Roche faces stiff competition in re-election bid

CLEARWATER — It was the year of the tea party, and Norm Roche pulled off a stunner.

On his fourth try for a County Commission seat, the former Democrat became a Republican and beat Calvin Harris, a moderate Democrat who had held the seat for 13 years. Roche's railing against government spending struck a chord at a time of widespread frustration with incumbents, taxes and Democrats.

Now Roche faces a formidable challenge within his own party for his countywide District 2 seat. To keep it, he first must fend off Republican state Rep. Ed Hooper, a former Clearwater city commissioner with plenty of name recognition and a campaign fund five times bigger than his. The winner of the Aug. 26 primary will then face Democrat Pat Gerard, the mayor of Largo.

Forced by term limits to leave the Legislature, Hooper said Roche is a smart, well-meaning commissioner, but his inability or unwillingness to compromise has rendered him ineffective.

"There are ways you can articulate your opinion, engage in discussion and get some of what's important to you, and I just haven't seen that Norm has the ability to do that," said Hooper, 67.

Roche, 52, calls that "a vacuous statement."

"There are plenty of politicians out there who have been in office a long time and will represent the establishment and special interests," he said. "I bring the people's concerns to the table and stand on my convictions on their behalf."

• • •

Roche admits his first year was a rocky one.

A former business development and environmental safety coordinator for an earth sciences company, he angered his colleagues by hiring an assistant despite the board's decision to leave the position unfilled to curb costs. Roche insisted he needed the help.

He also drew a rebuke from the board for using a county-issued credit card to buy $2,605 worth of office furniture, and then again for hiring a private company to clear an abandoned home's yard.

Roche calls those "manufactured issues" driven by politics.

"I was the guy who joined the club and wasn't invited and needed to get smacked into shape," he said.

Later, the Tampa Bay Times revealed that Roche, before and after he was elected, used a pseudonym to post controversial statements about his colleagues, blacks, gays and the city of St. Petersburg on tampabay.com, the Times' website. That, he now says, was a mistake and a "hard lesson learned."

Perhaps no other issue raised Roche's profile more than his opposition to fluoride. He spearheaded the effort in 2011 to end the practice of adding the chemical to the water supply, calling it a "social sort of program."

Two of the three Republican commissioners who joined him in that vote lost their re-election bids the following year. The third, Commissioner John Morroni, joined the 6-1 majority to reverse the decision in 2012.

Roche was the lone holdout and his stance hasn't changed. He said the majority of people who contacted him opposed more fluoride in their water.

Roche prides himself on being a watchdog for taxpayers' purses but is often in the minority when issues come to a vote. He voted against the budget in 2011 because he opposed entrance fees for Fort De Soto and Fred Howard parks. He voted against the budget in 2012 because it included tax increases to cover emergency medical services and Medicaid costs.

He was the lone vote against a domestic partner registry last year. He believes couples should use power of attorney agreements instead.

His opposition to taxes hasn't been ironclad. Roche voted in favor of a new property tax in East Lake this year to fund the private, nonprofit East Lake Youth Sports Association.

He insists he has tried to find common ground with his colleagues by offering alternate proposals to issues ranging from the stormwater runoff fee passed last year to the Greenlight Pinellas transit plan. Skeptical of light rail, he suggested asking voters for a half-penny sales tax increase to improve the bus system.

He said he is proud of his push for more resources in the county's Veterans Services Office and wants another four years to mind the county's purse strings.

"We're approaching bubble-level spending again without the bubble," he said. His solution: "Freeze the budget, level out spending and focus on redevelopment."

• • •

Roche's opposition to fluoride was a "big deal," Hooper said.

"I don't think any of the ones who voted to take it out of the water did it on clear and convincing evidence," he said.

The candidates do share an opposition to Greenlight Pinellas. Hooper said the county should ask voters to use Penny for Pinellas funds to improve mass transit.

The retired Clearwater fire lieutenant served on the Clearwater City Commission from 1996 to 2000. He points to his work in the Legislature to pass flood insurance regulation and increasing the penalties for domestic violence offenders. As chairman of the Legislature's Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations Committee, Hooper said his knowledge and contacts would benefit Pinellas on a range of issues, especially economic development.

"If we're serious about jobs, I'm sitting here with the cellphones of everyone in the economic world at the state level," he said.

Hooper is a partner in the Consus Group, a consulting firm that among other things helps developers navigate the government permitting process. He said he would sell his interest in the company if elected to avoid conflicts of interest.

"I don't need another government job," he said. "I could retire today and live just fine, but I still care, damn it."

Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (727)893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes

Comments
Do Trump’s alleged affairs even matter?

Do Trump’s alleged affairs even matter?

One of the quotes from the 2016 presidential campaign that has stuck with me came from an unidentified Donald Trump supporter who shared his appraisal of the "Access Hollywood" tape on an episode of Showtime’s "The Circus."Having heard Trump boast on...
Published: 02/18/18
Survivors of deadly school shooting lash out at Trump

Survivors of deadly school shooting lash out at Trump

PARKLAND, Fla. — Students who escaped the deadly school shooting in Florida focused their anger Sunday at President Donald Trump, contending that his response to the attack has been needlessly divisive. "You're the president. You're supposed t...
Published: 02/18/18
Trump adviser: Russian meddling ‘incontrovertible’

Trump adviser: Russian meddling ‘incontrovertible’

MUNICH — President Donald Trump’s national security adviser said Saturday there was "incontrovertible" evidence of a Russian plot to disrupt the 2016 U.S. election, a blunt statement that shows how significantly the new criminal charges leveled by an...
Published: 02/17/18
Prominent Republican donor issues an ultimatum

Prominent Republican donor issues an ultimatum

A prominent Republican political donor demanded on Saturday that the party pass legislation to restrict access to guns, and vowed not to contribute to any candidates or electioneering groups that did not support a ban on the sale of military-style fi...
Published: 02/17/18
Hundreds rally against gun violence in downtown St. Pete

Hundreds rally against gun violence in downtown St. Pete

ST. PETERSBURG — A red heart-shaped balloon rose above crowd of several hundred people that had gathered at Williams Park on Saturday evening to mourn Wednesday’s school shooting in Broward County and to protest gun violence.Below the balloon, signs ...
Published: 02/17/18
Divided Congress unable to act on guns, immigration despite public pressure

Divided Congress unable to act on guns, immigration despite public pressure

It’s been five years since the guns and immigration debate collided at the same time on Capitol Hill. This time, the results were even more unproductive.In early 2013, weeks after a gunman killed 20 students and six educators at an elementary school ...
Published: 02/17/18
Stormy Daniels does Tampa: 10 minutes of dancing, then $20 a photo

Stormy Daniels does Tampa: 10 minutes of dancing, then $20 a photo

TAMPA — Well, that was fast.Adult film actress Stormy Daniels made her first appearance at Thee Dollhouse on Friday evening, the first of several shows planned this weekend at the Tampa strip club.She took the stage about 7 p.m. dressed in a pink, fl...
Published: 02/16/18

3 things we just learned from the indictment of 13 Russians in the Mueller investigation

We have the first indictment in Robert Mueller’s investigation that actually has to do with Russian meddling in the 2016 election. The special counsel on Friday indicted 13 Russians in connection with a large-scale troll farm effort aimed at influenc...
Published: 02/16/18
Under fire, Kelly overhauls White House clearance procedure

Under fire, Kelly overhauls White House clearance procedure

NEW YORK — Under pressure over his handling of abuse allegations against a top aide, White House chief of staff John Kelly on Friday ordered sweeping changes in how the White House clears staff members to gain access to classified information, acknow...
Published: 02/16/18
Romney officially announces run for Utah Senate seat

Romney officially announces run for Utah Senate seat

Associated PressSALT LAKE CITY — Former presidential hopeful Mitt Romney is running for a Utah Senate seat, officially launching his political comeback attempt Friday by praising his adopted home state as a model for an acrimonious national governmen...
Published: 02/16/18