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Beckner wins Hillsborough Commission seat the hard way

Democrat Kevin Beckner, a 37-year-old financial adviser, beat Republican Hillsborough County Commission incumbent Brian Blair by 10 percentage points Tuesday.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Democrat Kevin Beckner, a 37-year-old financial adviser, beat Republican Hillsborough County Commission incumbent Brian Blair by 10 percentage points Tuesday.

TAMPA — Democrat Kevin Beckner did something this week only one other person has done this decade.

He unseated an incumbent Hillsborough County commissioner, knocking out one-term Republican Brian Blair in convincing fashion.

Beckner did it mostly the old-fashioned way. Starting 22 months ago, he embarked on a relentless grass roots campaign, quietly crisscrossing the county, tortoise and hare fashion, knocking on thousands of doors to introduce himself to voters in person. Along the way, he attracted an army of 400 volunteers to do it with him.

And unlike Blair, he showed up at almost every political gathering of two or more people.

"I think Beckner outworked him," said former Tampa City Council member Bob Buckhorn, a community affairs consultant and Democrat who lost to Blair four years ago.

Beckner, 37, a financial planner, combined shoe leather with direct mail that hit soft and hard, sounding simple, repetitive themes: Beckner would work across aisles to address quality-of-life issues; Blair had worked on behalf of developers and his own self-interests.

Both the walking and mail targeted voters Beckner and campaign manager Mitch Kates thought would be receptive.

"A lot of science went into it, and we focused like a laser beam on those areas that we needed to win," Beckner said.

Throw in some new-era Internet advertising on Facebook and friends who left no story uncommented upon in online news accounts of the race. Add an organized effort to court absentee ballots, normally a Republican strength.

The result was a 10-point victory all the more remarkable since Beckner is believed to be the first openly gay candidate to win elected office in Hillsborough County.

"At the end of the day, I think Beckner ran a great race," said east county businessman and activist Sam Rashid, one of several advisers to Blair.

Rashid would know. Eight years ago, he backed a young and relatively unknown GOP prosecutor named Stacey Easterling. With a similar mix of door knocking and direct mail, she beat incumbent Ben Wacksman, who held the solidly Democratic District 1 seat.

Like Wacksman, Blair ran the campaign of a man who appeared to believe in the power of his name recognition.

Blair is indeed well known to some, but not always seen favorably. Environmentalists describe him as an enemy for wetlands thanks to a vote to end local protections for them.

Unlike his successful run for the commission four years ago, there was little evidence that Blair did any neighborhood campaigning, which Rashid called a "fair" observation. And he was a virtual no-show at political forums.

"You always have to run like you're 20 points behind, even if you're not," said Republican political consultant April Schiff. "And I don't think he did that."

Instead, Blair bought radio and television spots, billboards and signs and some mail pieces.

Where Beckner's mail included large photos of him with would-be constituents and a focused message, Blair were textbook wordy with stock photos. And he never answered Beckner attacks.

That was particularly damaging, said former Hillsborough County Commissioner Joe Chillura, Blair's campaign treasurer.

"I'm Sicilian," he said. "I don't believe if someone punches you, you've got to turn the other cheek."

Blair didn't return a phone call seeking comment but has accused Beckner of dirty campaigning.

Kates said the rips of Blair's record were valid. Besides, he said, politics is a full-contact sport.

"When running against an incumbent, it's like you're going on a job interview," Kates said. "You need to convince the voters that the incumbent needs to be fired, and you need to be hired in their place."

Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Mike Van Sickler contributed to this report.

Beckner wins Hillsborough Commission seat the hard way 11/06/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 13, 2008 9:29pm]
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