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Two years into his first term, Pinellas Commissioner Norm Roche already a target

He campaigned out of his garage, eschewing the mass mailers most candidates rely on in favor of cold-calling county residents from a phone book.

It worked. After three unsuccessful campaigns, in 2010 Norm Roche overthrew a 13-year Democratic commissioner who outspent him six times over. It helped that in a year marked by anti-government sentiment and a wave of Tea Party support, he had changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican.

But halfway into Roche's first term, political insiders appear to have picked up the scent of vulnerability. Several elected officials in Pinellas said they have been asked to consider running for his seat, which isn't open until 2014.

"There's no question, since I've been around, it's unprecedented that there's been speculation this far out," said Todd Pressman, a long-time Republican consultant.

State Rep. Ed Hooper is among those being courted.

Hooper is a Republican currently running for reelection to his mid-Pinellas District 67 seat. If voters grant him another two years, term limits dictate that those would be his last.

"I've had lots of people ask me — I'm talking about quite a large number of people ask me — if I would consider running for the commission and I just told them that I'm concentrating on this election," Hooper said. "There's already people wondering where to send checks."

He directs them to his current campaign, the one that will be decided in two weeks, not two years.

Hooper would not say whether he intends to run for Roche's seat, but he clearly has given it thought. He owns a home in Roche's district, as well as property in Commissioners Karen Seel and Susan Latvala's districts, giving him options if a pending lawsuit over term limits prevents them from running again.

After the state House, there are only two offices that hold his interest, he said: the state Senate and the Pinellas County Commission. Jack Latvala, Hooper's political consultant, currently occupies the Senate seat he would want.

"The county commission is certainly something I think I could do," he said.

State Rep. Peter Nehr, 60, whose district is just north of Hooper's, said he too has been encouraged to run against Roche. Whether he would attempt it "depends on the details and where I am in my life in two years and what other positions might be available to me," he said.

Like Hooper, he is running for reelection on Nov. 6, and, if he wins, would be forced out in two years.

Another potential Roche challenger could be Pat Gerard, a 62-year-old Democrat who has been the mayor of Largo since 2006. She was reelected to another four-year term in July when no one signed up to oppose her.

Behind the inquiries and solicitations to run for the seat, Gerard sees a widespread desire — one that crosses party lines — to change the commission's composition.

The people who have approached her "would like to line people up early just in case they end up in the same place after the election that they are now," Gerard said.

Where the commission is now is spelled out in the four to three votes that have decided key matters, such as tax rate increases and whether to stop adding fluoride to the county's drinking water. With his election, Roche brought a strand of conservatism to the typically staid commission that has unsettled some of his colleagues and the public.

"My perspective on our board, what you have is not some ideological battle, what you have is sort of an old school status quo versus new minds," Roche said.

Largely unknown before his election, Roche told voters that he would be a forthright and honest voice in a group that he says is too often unquestioning.

But within a year, he was fending off multiple controversies. In October of 2011, he called for a reexamination of the practice of adding fluoride to the county's drinking water. One of four who ultimately voted to end fluoridation — he labeled it a "social sort of program" — he was criticized by dentists and health officials.

Not long after that, Roche's fellow commissioners chastised him for using a county-issued credit card to buy $2,605 worth of office furniture, and then again for paying for a private company to clear an abandoned home's yard.

Later, a Tampa Bay Times reporter revealed questionable comments that Roche had made on the newspaper's website, tampabay.com. Under the alias "Reality," Roche wrote that St. Petersburg has "more thug shootings, drug od's, and prostitutes beatings" than other cities.

That year, Roche readily admits, was "rough." He has had a smoother ride since then, but was not surprised to learn that opposition could be lining up.

"I can see that I do not play the 'political game' very well," he said. "And it's because I don't view this job I do as a game. It's very serious."

Name recognition also could be a problem for Roche. Before he defeated Commissioner Calvin Harris, he had never held political office. And his seat on the commission does not afford him the visibility of the state House or Senate.

"The reality is that certainly Norm can be knocked off," said Ramsay McLauchlan, a former chair of the Pinellas Democratic Party.

"I think it was a bit of a fluke that he won last time. And that was before his issues with the credit card and before the fluoride vote and before a whole number of things that have got people on both sides of the aisle scratching their heads and saying why is this person on the County Commission."

Two years into his first term, Pinellas Commissioner Norm Roche already a target 10/23/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 23, 2012 5:46pm]
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