With one notable exception, incumbents in the County Commission's fall elections lead the fundraising field by wide margins, according to first quarter financial reports filed Thursday.
But in the race for Pasco's eastern district, where incumbent Ted Schrader had for months lagged by a 4-to-1 ratio behind challenger John Nicolette, the money gap has significantly shrunken.
Up until Thursday, Nicolette, a rancher and Tampa firefighter, had reported $40,240, far ahead of commission Chairman Ted Schrader's $11,001.
But after lunchtime Thursday, Schrader filed papers showing he's amassed $62,107. Nicolette, whose father-in-law is former County Attorney Robert Sumner, reported $73,645.
"We've been working extremely hard to gain supporters," Schrader said. "There was some indecision among previous supporters. They wanted to see who was going to get into the race. Many (of the latest contributors) were past supporters — a number of agricultural producers, attorneys, people in the development community. There are many repeat supporters and we're certainly supportive of that."
Schrader's donors in the last quarter included the developer Geoffrey Weber of Clearwater, who's behind a troubled housing project called Citrus Ridge; developers behind the Grove at Wesley Chapel mall; civic activist Richard Riley, who opposes Citrus Ridge; and well-connected allies like real estate agent Dewey Mitchell and environmentalist Jennifer Seney.
Nicolette's donors include firefighters, his influential in-laws, Caliente Resorts investor Carl Anderson, St. Petersburg surgeon and developer J. Crayton Pruitt, and others from as far away as Naples and Georgia. Nicolette didn't return a call for comment Thursday.
A third candidate in the east Pasco race, Gina King, reported $2,300 in contributions. All three District 1 candidates are Republicans.
In Pasco's southwestern district, Republican Ann Hildebrand, who's running for her seventh term, has a $53,725 war chest. Most of it came in $500 checks.
Her competitors, Republican Wil Nickerson, and Democrats Terri Conroy and Nicholas Planck, have a combined total of $3,398.
The funding gulf prompted Nickerson to criticize the advantage of incumbency and the sources of Hildebrand's funding.
"The incumbent's been getting them all from builders and contractors and related industry, which is a little scary in a sense," Nickerson said. "They know she's going to run again, and they know they have her in their pocket. They are just donating $500 a whack. That's the way it works, unfortunately. Makes it hard for a newcomer."
"Her contributions are predominantly from the development industry, which is nothing unique," Planck said. "But it's early. I expected (Hildebrand's fundraising efforts) next quarter, not this quarter. Maybe she's concerned."
Hildebrand shot back, saying she's been involved in a lot of community work and pointing out that many candidates receive money from the development industry.
"I'm very sensitive to the fact that business people make financial contributions to campaigns, but obviously it's residents who go to the polls," she said. "What I've done is be extremely involved in the community, speaking to residents, sitting on boards. I went to an event last Saturday night; I'm speaking this weekend; I'm talking to residents about Progress Energy's plans on May 3 — and I'm doing that on a Saturday. I was a social worker in my first (career)."
Her donors include Krusen-Douglas, a Tampa developer pushing a 1,600-acre mixed-use project in east Pasco; Sun West Acquisition, a group looking to develop 2,300 acres off the Hudson coast; Harrison Bennett, a company with interests in a 400-acre development proposal in central Pasco; the Starkey family, who are trying to develop the last 2,500 acres of their land empire; and an array of engineers, planners and landowners.
In the race for Pasco's northwestern district, incumbent Republican Jack Mariano has so far pulled in $23,215, nearly twice as much as Republican rival Rich Jenkins, who has $13,900, and Democrat Ginny Miller, who reported $4,975. Another candidate, Democrat Lance Shortt, said he had no contributions or expenditures last quarter.
Mariano was on vacation and didn't reply to a message Thursday.
In other races, Republican Brian Corley, who was picked in January 2007 by Gov. Charlie Crist as Supervisor of Elections to replace Kurt Browning, is running for another term with $8,560 so far, behind his Democratic rival, Patricia Carroll, who has $15,809.
Corley said Thursday all candidates who fail to file reports on time could face a range of fines, from $50 a day to $500 a day — even if the candidate is in jail.
"We do have one candidate who's incarcerated right now," Corley said. "It's difficult but you still have to file. We've sent him several letters."
George F. Vera, a Republican who is contesting Mariano's seat, is in jail on a charge of simple battery, and had not filed any financial report by Thursday. Corley said he would turn Vera's case over to the Florida Elections Commission.
In uncontested races, Property Appraiser Mike Wells, a Republican, has $46,525. Tax Collector Mike Olson, a Democrat, on the other hand, has $1,000, all of which he loaned to himself.
Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4613.