TAMPA — Until recently, the battle for the District 6 County Commission seat was an intense, yet fairly conventional ground game where things like jobs and the economy were the driving issues. But underneath was a vein of strange. It has taken over in the final days. The race is now the roughest in Hillsborough County.
Incumbent Democrat Kevin Beckner reached into his pot of campaign donations last week to air a TV ad that portrays his Republican challenger, Margaret Iuculano, as "a train wreck with money." It cites a bankruptcy and tax liens. It also ridicules Iuculano for taking advice from a psychic, which she says is not true.
At the same time, a Tallahassee-based group calling itself the Family Defense Fund mailed out a brochure headlined "Stop The Taxpayer Rip-Off." It accuses Beckner of funneling no-bid contracts to friends in his role on the county Children's Board, an accusation that has been disproved.
All of this follows an underground stream of emotional, vitriolic emails that have flown all summer and fall, many of them between 3 and 4 a.m., few of them sent by the candidates themselves.
This one, by developer consultant David Campo, was sent to Beckner at 3:30 a.m. last Tuesday: "I truly believe you are beyond corrupt, that you intentionally promulgate initiatives in our County to further your selfish agenda while taking regular egomaniacal credit and illegal payoffs. . . ."
Beckner calls the emails and text messages from Campo "cyberstalking."
Iuculano has gotten the same rough treatment from the other email side. Unknown people, she says, "are creating fake email accounts impersonating me and sending this information out. They have also created fake Facebook accounts 'Vote for Margaret' with the similar information, and last but not least, my 4-by-8 signs have had people attack them with razor blades and hammers."
But voters who have attended either candidate's campaign events would never guess these guerilla undercurrents.
A year ago, Iuculano attacked Beckner, the commission's first openly gay member, for his "ultra-liberal San Francisco-style agenda." She described herself as an "opponent of the radical left."
But since then, their race has been more about jobs and financial oversight, about helping small businesses and families. Most of the stereotypes faded away.
Beckner often sounds like a Republican, citing how he worked with a Republican-dominated commission to cut the county's recession budget by $1 billion, how his main focus has been on job creation.
Iuculano, a survivor of 15 foster homes, is a passionate advocate for foster children. She can sound like a Democrat when she talks about helping families in crisis.
Local, practical issues have characterized their race, not national social controversies. "On the local level, what else would people expect me to focus on?" Beckner asks.
Their paths to the general election were similar, too, neither based on heavy media advertisements, but on working the neighborhoods, door by door.
Iuculano says she, her husband and son have knocked on 30,000 doors. Beckner said door-knocking was how he won as a challenger four years ago, and he hasn't forgotten how.
But Beckner has a huge financial advantage. He has raised almost $300,000. That's more than any other commission candidate. Iuculano has raised $72,000.
Early on, Iuculano got donations from out-of-state conservative PACs, including the Strategic Campaign Group in Alexandria, Va., and the Veterans Victory Fund in Chantilly, Va. Iuculano says some of those were connections made when her husband was a Navy officer serving in the Northeast.
Beckner says those early PAC donations caused him to step up his own fundraising, believing this would be a high-spending race. His donors have included many local labor unions — among them carpenters, plumbers and firefighters.
His antagonist Campo uncovered inappropriate email solicitations to three county planners. Beckner says those emails were unintentional and none of the planners gave him money. On Friday, Campo filed a formal complaint with the Florida Elections Commission.
At public appearances, Beckner cites his success at broad collaborations with Republican commissioners — in areas like social service, job development, services to the elderly, juvenile crime, prescription drug abuse and insurance fraud.
"I'm a minority on the board, but I've worked in a bipartisan way," Beckner told an audience at the University of South Florida. "We set aside differences, we work together. We don't let our labels divide us."
At her public appearances, Iuculano cites her experience as an entrepreneur who has an ear for the tribulations of small business. Iuculano previously owned a company that provided information technology consulting and training. Her "Blueprint for Jobs" includes calling for streamlined regulations, reductions in fees charged to business and greater cooperation with the county's cities.
She also presents a softer side, rooted in her experience growing up in foster homes. She is the founder of Angels for Foster Kids, a group that seeks to bring awareness of issues facing foster children.
"I would replace the entire county Children's Board," Iuculano told a Temple Terrace audience of Republicans.
Beckner is the commission's representative on the Children's Board. Its CEO was recently forced out amid reports of questionable spending and a dysfunctional workplace. A Tampa Bay Times investigation last spring found no-bid contracts totaling $450,000 that didn't meet board guidelines.
Iuculano says that Beckner, a certified financial planner and self-proclaimed fiscal watchdog, should have been aware of the problems. He says the contracts were legal, were awarded administratively, and he had no vote on any of them.
Beckner says Iuculano is the one who is bad with money, citing a bankruptcy and tax liens.
In 2007, she and her husband ran a real estate holding company, LAX Capital, that owned a building at 1327 E Seventh Ave. in Ybor City. It was financed through Lehman Brothers. The building housed Iuculano Family Enterprises, as well as rental units. The couple sold their company, then lost their tenants in the real estate collapse. They filed for bankruptcy with over $1 million in claims.
Iuculano says she was no reckless speculator. "We put 30 percent down and hundreds of thousands of hard-earned dollars into that building. It's not like we bought it with no money down."
Beckner also has criticized her for two outstanding Florida Department of Revenue liens from that sale — one for $4,200 and another for $12,700. She says both liens were filed within 30 days of the sale, but she wasn't personally notified because they were filed against Iuculano Family Enterprises, which was sold.
Iuculano has fired back at Beckner, challenging his claim that he voluntarily cut his commission pay. Beckner and other commissioners did not cut their salaries, but did give up $3,600 each a year in car allowances.
With a week to go, the race seems a long way from the two candidates' original motivations.
Beckner says his were to enhance "human values." Iuculano says hers were "a belief in good people standing up for what they believe in."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. John Barry can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or [email protected]