BROOKSVILLE — Sometime during the summer, convinced that his political career was finally over, Joe Johnston threw out some old campaign signs that were taking up space in his garage.
Johnston had served on the Brooksville City Council for a dozen years before term limits forced him out in 2006. A couple of years away from the dais had made him comfortable with living outside of the City Hall spotlight.
But, almost literally at the last moment, Johnston decided he couldn't stay away.
"It's the same reason that I ran the first time," Johnston said. "I decided I wanted to give back to the community. And I kind of missed it."
Johnston will challenge incumbent Frankie Burnett, the city's vice mayor, and political newcomer Jason Sharp in the race for Seat 3 on the council. No matter what happens Tuesday, Johnston figures to have a more anxious evening than he did in his last bid for office: He ran unopposed in 2002.
A close race would be nothing new for Burnett, who was denied a seat on the council after a loss in 2002 but rebounded with a victory in a tight three-way race in 2004.
"I feel comfortable with the direction we're going," Burnett said. "I just want the voters to understand that if they elect me to represent them, I will actually represent them."
Meanwhile, the little known Sharp said his lack of a political background could be a plus in a race against two experienced candidates.
Sharp, 32, a native of Brooksville and owner of a property maintenance company, believes his first bid for public office could serve as an example for other residents looking to get involved in local government.
"I'd have never dreamt of doing something like this once upon a time," Sharp said. "I'm not running to put anybody out of a job. I just want an opportunity to get involved."
The Seat 3 race could be particularly interesting given the political pedigree and name recognition of the candidates, specifically Burnett and Johnston. One or both men have had their names on Hernando ballots dating back to 1994.
The political re-emergence of Johnston, 56, was certainly something of a surprise. He was the final candidate in Hernando to qualify by the Aug. 29 deadline for the election, choosing to challenge Burnett instead of Mayor David Pugh and two other candidates in the Seat 2 race.
Johnston said several residents approached him about making another run at the council, and challenging Burnett seemed a safer bet than going against Pugh with whom he shares a base of support. Johnston is the rare challenger with more experience at the dais than the incumbent, serving as mayor four times during his 12-year stint on the council.
Burnett "has served and served well," Johnston said. "I just think I offer a better choice in experience. I hate the term running against someone."
Burnett, 53, only the second black candidate elected to the council, said he had little concern for the reasons why Johnston chose to run against him rather than Pugh.
"I really don't know," Burnett said. "And, to be honest, I really don't care."
Instead, Burnett trumpeted his record since joining the council, pointing to the city's improved relationship with Hernando County government and efforts to avoid duplication of services. Burnett also noted the council has worked particularly well together in the past two years — not so coincidentally, right after Johnston's term came to an end.
"We work together as a team," Burnett said. "I always put people over politics."
Johnston admits the council seems to work more "smoothly" than during his final days in office but attributes some of that to personality conflicts with former council members and turmoil with the city administration.
Now Johnston said he's focused on bringing long-range planning to the council, hoping to position Brooksville to capitalize once the economic downturn has ended. That could mean trying to grow the city's tax base through annexation, Johnston said.
"I'm looking 15 to 20 years down the road when we come out of this current cycle of boom and bust that we're in," Johnston said. "Brooksville is positioned to grow. When future growth spurts happen, we can have somewhat of a better tax base."
Sharp said he would also encourage more city growth, as long as the city didn't overextend its resources.
Joel Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 754-6120.