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Beckner takes slim lead in race for Hillsborough Commission seat

Kevin Beckner, who was holding a slight lead, takes a call from a supporter as he watches election results at Gaspar’s Grotto in Ybor City with Deborah Cope, campaign chairman for the Hillsborough Democratic Party.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Kevin Beckner, who was holding a slight lead, takes a call from a supporter as he watches election results at Gaspar’s Grotto in Ybor City with Deborah Cope, campaign chairman for the Hillsborough Democratic Party.

TAMPA — A Hillsborough County Commission that has shown open hostility to gay residents may be getting its first openly gay member.

First-time candidate and Democrat Kevin Beckner was positioned to pull the upset of the evening late Tuesday in his bid to unseat Republican Brian Blair.

With thousands of votes still to be counted, Beckner, 37, a financial planner who launched his campaign nearly two years ago, was narrowly leading Blair with 70 percent of precincts reporting.

In the Commission's two other races, Chairman Ken Hagan and District 4 incumbent Al Higginbotham were headed toward easy wins. And voters also appeared to support giving veto power to an elected county mayor, though they have yet to decide whether to create the position.

But the Blair-Beckner contest provided much of the local drama, with Beckner hoping to edge out a victory.

"Right now we're very confident and optimistic," Beckner said. "I'm very proud of the campaign we have run and the people who have been involved.

"We're just waiting for the final verdict to come back from the jury."

Beckner has said he did not run to promote a gay-rights agenda, though a last-minute phone attack ad claimed as much. He said he made the disclosure only to be honest with voters about who he is.

If his margin holds up, he would join a board that rescinded previously granted discrimination protections for gays and lesbians. The Commission also garnered national attention three years ago with its 5-1 vote banning gay pride displays on county property.

And just this April, Blair wrote parents asking them to pressure the Hillsborough County School District to ban student-led silent protests against the bullying of gays.

Reached late Tuesday, Blair, 51, a former wrestler and gym owner, said, "I don't have time right now," and hung up.

In his one term, Blair established a record of fighting for tax cuts, opposing fees and seeking to streamline government. Despite a pledge to be a "uniter not a divider," he often fomented division within the community.

He presided over the county's Environmental Protection Commission when it initially voted to end its local wetlands protection. The vote came amid revelations that he had pushed the county to clean up a chain of lakes that includes the one behind his home.

Environmentalists dubbed him one of the "Gang of Four,'' along with Hagan, Higginbotham and Jim Norman, who they claim blindly support pro-growth policies.

Beckner campaigned on a pledge to work across partisan lines to address quality-of-life issues, from the economy to transportation. He said he wants to make the area a more attractive place to live for young professionals by keeping it an affordable place to live.

"It's about people, not the special interests," Beckner said Tuesday.

In the other Commission races, Hagan, 41, a Republican representing northern Hillsborough in the District 2 contest, faced only write-in opposition from Harold "Bud" Gleason of Carrollwood. Hagan was leading in a rout.

Higginbotham, 54, a Plant City Republican, was holding a commanding lead over first-time candidate Pete Gifford, an electrical contractor from Riverview who ran without party affiliation.

In another campaign question relating to county government, a proposal to give a county mayor veto power was passing by a small margin.

The measure was a companion to a question asking voters whether they support creating an elected county mayor. That measure got tossed off the ballot in a court challenge.

Supporters hope to recraft the county mayor question for the 2010 ballot. They left the veto proposal on the ballot so they don't have to again collect signatures from registered voters to get that measure back on the ballot.

"If it comes through, it tells you people want change," said lawyer Mary Ann Stiles, who led the effort.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Beckner takes slim lead in race for Hillsborough Commission seat 11/05/08 [Last modified: Friday, November 7, 2008 8:35pm]
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