Boosted by a big Republican turnout, political newcomer Henry Wilson Jr. pulled off a stunning upset Tuesday over incumbent Michael Cox to win a seat on the Pasco County Commission.
Wilson, a 37-year-old Republican who works as a managed care director in Tampa, knocked off the commission's lone Democrat by winning 52 percent of the votes for the District 4 seat.
Meanwhile, Pat Mulieri, the Republican incumbent in District 2, took 70 percent of the votes, easily holding off challenger Clay Colson, a Land O'Lakes activist who ran as an independent.
It's the Wilson win that will have everybody talking.
Cox, a 46-year-old financial planner, was running for his second four-year term. He was one of the county's most high-profile commissioners and is widely credited with helping land financial firm T. Rowe Price and getting the county to devise strategic and business plans.
Widely known in business and civic circles, Cox raised $162,000 — more than Wilson, Mulieri and Colson combined and only about $22,000 short of the Pasco GOP's take. He'd spent $154,000 of that.
Wilson had no political experience other than being a Republican precinct chairman. He raised less than $9,000, did not attend County Commission meetings and never mounted a very public campaign — except when he made a couple of missteps, including filing an inaccurate campaign finance complaint against Cox, that landed him in the news.
But as of 6 p.m. Tuesday, turnout among Republican voters in Pasco outnumbered Democrats by 18,000.
"I was worried all day when I saw the Republican turnout," said Cox. "I just couldn't overcome that. At the end of the day, it was better to be a Republican than a Democrat."
Wilson said his campaign focus on making sure the people's voices are heard paid off.
"They wanted new, fresh blood," he told Bay News 9, the partner station of the St. Petersburg Times.
Just recently, Cox's campaign conducted a poll of likely voters. It showed him winning, he said.
Cox said he didn't take his loss as an indictment of his time on the board.
"I stand by a lot of decisions I made on the commission," he said. "I stand by all of them. … I didn't do anything wrong other than have a D behind my name."
Wilson's victory was reminiscent of the one then-newcomer Jack Mariano, a Republican, pulled off in 2004 when he beat incumbent Commissioner Peter Altman, a Democrat who had a 3-to-1 fundraising advantage, a record of accomplishments and name recognition. Back then, Mariano, too, got a boost from a big Republican turnout for races further up the ticket.
In recent weeks, Cox's campaign tried to capitalize on mistakes by Wilson. One mailer, which was paid for by the Tallahassee-based group Florida Mainstream Democrats, knocked Wilson for running unlicensed home businesses.
Wilson also filed an inaccurate complaint against Cox with the Florida Elections Commission, something that Wilson did not correct until reporters notified him of his mistakes.
In the District 2 race, Mulieri, 72, the Republican incumbent, was seeking her fifth term on the commission. She is a retired English professor at Pasco-Hernando Community College.
Her campaign, financed by a $88,495 war chest, had focused on her experience; her work on behalf of veterans and her support from law enforcement and firefighters unions.
Colson, 55, a longtime Land O'Lakes community activist, was making his first run for public office.
Cox said he'd had better nights, but he'd be okay in a few months. "The good news," he said, "is they don't take you out back and shoot you."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.