If political parties doled out scarlet letters, some Republicans might be dreamily picturing Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe in a bright red "T."
That's "T" for tax, and maybe also for tea partiers who would have him wear it. But more on Sharpe's apparently unpardonable sin in a minute.
When he came on the political scene, Sharpe talked fiscal conservatism (and still does). He walks the walk and even looks the part, down to that severe military I-can-practically-see-your-scalp haircut.
But a funny thing happened on his way to becoming a seasoned veteran of local government, not to mention one of the grownups on the dais. He asked questions, talked about working with (rather than against) Tampa and tended to vote with consideration. You might not agree with him, but over time you got the sense he believes that stuff about government being for the people it served.
What has landed him in hot water — and earned him an eleventh-hour election opponent — is his take on transit, another scarlet "T" they wouldn't mind pinning to his crisp white button-down.
Sharpe became a big proponent of a 1-cent sales tax for light rail, road improvements and a revamped bus system. A political mailer from the other side warns voters he will vote to "impose" the tax if re-elected. In truth, he and a majority of commissioners (including, ahem, a couple of fellow Republicans) voted to put it on the November ballot for the citizens to decide.
But no doubt, Sharpe is a rail believer, for the good of the region and the investment in the future. He has even spoken about it at tea party events, where the reply from attendees was their intention to boot him from office for it.
So along came the last-minute challenge from Republican Josh Burgin, who has not been shy in saying he is running against rail.
"Mark is a good man," he says. "But on this issue, I think he is simply wrong."
Burgin seems an affable enough guy and says he graduated from "the school of hard knocks and life experience." He worked as an aide to then-County Commissioner Brian Blair and as executive director of the Hillsborough Republican Party. Also notable: He has worked for Republican activist and businessman Sam Rashid, who opposes the tax referendum.
Rashid is supporting Burgin. And this is America, and he can throw his clout where he likes. Ask Dottie Berger, the commissioner he helped oust in the '90s after she supported a tax referendum.
Here's a nifty trick — if you think the current guy is not party-pure, run someone against him in the primary. As an added bonus, you shut out voters from the other party who might just like the incumbent.
Me, I'm all for more choices on the ballot — just not for tools to keep politicians toeing the party line like it's an electric fence.
Some nonrail facts about Sharpe: He wanted to get rid of County Administrator Pat Bean and get government back on track long before it actually happened. He tends to get along with fellow board members, and despite long-held county tradition, with the mayor of the city within that county.
And because he wants voters to be able to decide on transit (that big red "T" again), Sharpe has a fight on his hands. If you're not looking for a guy who thinks for himself, he's probably not your man.