Hillsborough Republicans off to a rocky start in 2018

Tampa Bay Times Correspondent William March
Tampa Bay Times Correspondent William March
Published January 12 2018

The Hillsborough County Republican Party is having a shaky start to election year 2018.

Chairman Deborah Tamargo has been ousted over a seemingly petty squabble that reflects the long-standing division between East Hillsborough conservatives and establishment-oriented Tampa Republicans. The vice chairmanship is also vacant.

Meanwhile, for the first time in years, the local GOP has fallen behind county Democrats in membership and meeting attendance, and the Dems are catching up in fundraising.

The party will hold an election for vice-chairman next week, and an election to replace Tamargo next month.

Tamargo resigned because of a grievance by other party officers that arose from an argument over where the party would hold its monthly meetings.

The question has political significance — the east Hillsborough base that has come to dominate the party over the last 15 years prefers an eastern meeting spot.

The party met in a downtown Tampa location until 2003, when Al Higginbotham of Plant City, representing the increasing influence of East Hillsborough in the party, replaced the late Margie Kincaid of Tampa as chairman.

Some east county Republicans have advocated meeting at The River of Tampa Bay church, located just east of Interstate 75. But after lengthy consideration, it lost out to Netpark Tampa Bay, which is closer to town. At least some party members considered it inappropriate to meet at a church.

But a seemingly minor squabble over speaking time during the debate at one party meeting led to a move to censure Tamargo, then to a grievance alleging she broke party rules in responding to the censure.

She resigned Monday, before the outcome of the grievance became known.

Party insiders said simple personality clashes intensified the friction, but denied there was any battle over ideology.

Vice Chairman Jeff Lukens, a Tamargo ally, had resigned in protest of the censure, but said now that the issue is settled he’ll seek the post again. Ryan Love also has told party members he’s running.

The chairman’s election is more up in the air, and some party regulars said they’re surprised by the lack of interested candidates.

Secretary Jeanne Webb, acting chairman, said she’s not interested. Former Chairman Art Wood didn’t rule it out but said he’d prefer an advisory role.

The lack of candidates is "a little eerie," Wood said.

Meanwhile, local Democrats say an anti-Trump surge has boosted their membership to 270 precinct representatives, while the Republicans have dropped to about 190.

The county Democrats raised $753,816 in 2017 to the Republicans’ $853,754. A number of major GOP donors from the past, including East Hillsborough conservative activist Sam Rashid, have not given to the party recently, while prominent Tampa Democrats have stepped up their giving.

Endorsement watch

• With three Republican state House members running for attorney general, backing from other House members is likely to be at a premium. Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover, has announced endorsements of seven Republican colleagues: Reps. Larry Ahern of Seminole; Ben Albritton of Bartow; Daniel Burgess of Zephyrhills; Dane Eagle of Cape Coral, Chris Latvala of Clearwater; Kathleen Peters of St. Petersburg; and Charlie Stone of Ocala. But Rep. Jay Fant, R-Jacksonville, also running, has announced 14 House backers and Rep. Frank White eight. Ashley Moody of Plant City, meanwhile, has endorsements from about two dozen sheriffs.

• U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor has endorsed Mariella Smith in the crowded Democratic primary for the countywide District 5 county commissioner’s race. Smith already had backing from Commissioner Par Kemp. Democrats Mark Nash, Jamela Passmore and Elvis Jamine Piggott are also running; the nominee likely will face incumbent Republican Victor Crist.

Murman backs Toledo on texting

County Commissioner Sandy Murman has added an item to next week’s county commission agenda for consideration of a resolution backing House Bill 33, the ban on texting while driving, which is sponsored by Tampa legislator and fellow Republican Rep. Jackie Toledo.

Tiger Bay awards

The second annual Lifetime Achievement Awards by the Tampa Tiger Bay Club will go to former U.S. Rep. Michael Bilirakis, a Republican, and Democratic former state senator, education commissioner and University of South Florida President Betty Castor.

The awards will be presented at a Tiger Bay dinner Feb. 12.

The club gives the awards annually to one Democrat and one Republican. Last year’s went to former Gov. Bob Martinez and former state house Speaker Terrell Sessums.