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."
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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."
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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