TAMPA — Five of the seven Hillsborough County Commission seats are up for election next year. But one race is already getting heavy attention from conservatives, 15 months before the November's 2012 election.
The early target: Kevin Beckner, one of just two Democrats on the board.
So far, three Republicans have filed papers indicating they will challenge Beckner's re-election bid, though one, Brad Faircloth, said he has dropped out. Only one of the other five commissioners faces any opposition at this stage: Democrat Les Miller.
In the past 10 days, a conservative activist with a history of involvement in state and national politics created a new Florida-based political blog. Beckner is the subject of its first entry, a hit piece heavy with innuendo but lacking an actual gotcha.
Beckner also came under fire recently from a Hillsborough County Republican Party leader for his proposal to restore partial funding for public-access television. Josh Burgin, the party's treasurer, called the failed effort a "waste of tax dollars" in the mass e-mail.
Burgin said Beckner is not being singled out by the Republican Party. But he agreed that the early activity likely foreshadows lots of interest in the campaign.
"I don't think there's any other race in the county that's going to be as high profile as the District 6 commission race," Burgin said of Beckner's at-large seat.
Beckner, who is finishing his first term in office, said he welcomes the scrutiny of his record. But he said he fears the early salvo from the Florida Activist blog portends a campaign that will focus on "vitriol" rather than substance.
"It's really very unfortunate the way they've started off the campaign season, not even attacking me on the issues, but personally," Beckner said. "It seems to there is an intention to attempt character assassination on me."
Beckner, 40, got elected as an openly gay candidate, defeating incumbent Republican Brian Blair.
As a commissioner, he has been vocal, generally siding with board majorities that have pressed for spending cuts.
He has advocated gay rights issues, such as domestic partner benefits. But his signature effort to date has been a campaign to get first-time juvenile offenders into a diversion program that spares them a criminal record. He also has led other police-friendly initiatives, such as an approved crackdown on pill mills and a proposal to go after people who commit insurance fraud by staging stage car crashes.
Opponents to date
His opponents so far are Steve Cona, a 36-year-old Westchase resident who works for the trade group Associated Builders and Contractors, and Margaret Iuculano, 44, of Apollo Beach, founder of a foster child advocacy group.
Both emphasize economic development and job creation on their websites. They filed paperwork to run July 1, the day after the last reporting period, so their financial support is not clear yet.
Iuculano could not be reached. Cona said he is not running against Beckner, per se, but to fight for more business-friendly government. He said he picked this race because it was the only at-large contest and he wanted to take his message countywide.
"He's in the seat. The county is still bloated." Cona said. "It doesn't have anything to do with partisan politics."
Cona said he didn't seek the blessing of the Republican Party to run and had nothing to do with the recent blog post.
That blog post appears on FloridaActivist.com. It is written by Nadia Naffe, a conservative activist and contributing writer to other national websites, such as RedCounty.com and BigGovernment.com, the latter run by conservative website operator Andrew Breitbart.
Naffe's post about Beckner makes a number of inferences, most notably highlighting the growth in his net worth since getting elected as a commissioner. It suggests the two things are related, with the line, "Serving as a Hillsborough County Commissioner has been a financial boon for Beckner," though she doesn't back up the connection.
Beckner said his net worth has climbed due to gains in an investment portfolio, a mixture of mutual fund and stock holdings that have no connection to his commission votes. They range from the American Century Growth Fund to shares of Microsoft, all detailed in his financial disclosure forms.
Other suggestions in the blog post of questionable dealings are similarly not backed up. Beckner said he is most upset with one.
It suggests he is a hypocrite for advocating openness in government but using an exemption in state disclosure laws to keep his home address a secret. That's because, as the post notes, Beckner shares the home with his partner, Sgt. Gil Sainz, a 26-year veteran of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.
State law allows law enforcement officers to shield their home information to protect themselves. The blog, Beckner said, pinpoints his home in relationship to neighbors, putting his partner in jeopardy.
"It brings campaigning to a new low," Beckner said.
About the blogger
In addition to her web writings, Naffe, of Tampa, was previously a field director for the Republican Party of Florida. She worked as a regional field director for the 2004 Bush-Cheney presidential campaign.
Naffe, who is African-American, filed a discrimination lawsuit against the party and campaign, saying she was let go for complaining she was used mainly for race-based outreach. The case was settled out of court.
About her blog post on Beckner, she noted that the commissioner himself disclosed his own address in early financial reports, though he doesn't on his latest. As for the rest of her assertions?
"I think the story that I wrote speaks for itself," Naffe said.
She insists she is not singling out Beckner for special attention.
"I just have a renewed focus on local politics," Naffe said. "I just launched my new blog. I wanted to focus it on things on the immediate surrounding area."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or firstname.lastname@example.org.