TAMPA — A campaign maneuver by Hillsborough County Commission hopeful Linda Saul-Sena led to a confrontation at an early voting site Wednesday.
Saul-Sena, a Democrat and former Tampa City Council member, is distributing signs in predominantly black precincts claiming Republican opponent "Ken Hagan Honors Confederate Memorial Day."
Hagan, a county commissioner attempting to switch to the at-large District 5 seat, arrived at the C. Blythe Andrews Jr. Public Library after the lunch hour Wednesday. He noticed one of the signs and took it to a poll worker.
"I said, 'Hey, I think this is offensive,' " Hagan said. " 'What can we do about it?' I think it has racial overtones."
Hagan said he was told by the poll worker that he only helps ensure people don't campaign within 100 feet of the building, as prescribed by state law. He was told he'd need to take the sign outside the perimeter.
A Hillsborough County supervisor of elections spokesman confirmed the exchange. From there, accounts differ.
Hagan said he returned the sign to a Saul-Sena campaign worker and left. The volunteer, actually with the Hillsborough Democratic Party, says Hagan tossed it on the ground and replaced the sign with his own.
The volunteer, Mable Smith, said Hagan visited the site with his young son. She said the boy asked what the sign means.
"He told his son, 'I'll tell you when you get a little older,' " Smith said.
The red-and-blue sign makes its assertion against a backdrop of a Confederate battle flag pattern. It refers to Hagan's votes in favor of an annual proclamation that had been signed by most commissioners for years recognizing Confederate Memorial Day.
The sign includes a quote from Hagan, taken from the Tampa Tribune in 2007 when passage of the proclamation failed with him in the minority. "I don't see anything wrong with signing it," he said, though it puts Hagan's actual use of the word 'didn't' in the present tense.
Saul-Sena said she would file a complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics saying Hagan improperly removed one of her campaign signs. Travis Abercrombie, a spokesman for the elections office, said state elections laws don't expressly prohibit the removal of campaign signs, though other laws may apply.
"You're not supposed to take someone's campaign sign and throw it down," Saul-Sena said. "I think it's completely wrong that Ken Hagan never has paid attention to this community. Suddenly, now that he's running countywide for election, he cares."
Hagan recently picked up an endorsement from the Florida Sentinel Bulletin, the newspaper catering to Hillsborough's African-American community. The paper noted it rarely backs Republicans running against viable Democrats, but blasted Saul-Sena as never doing anything for the black community.
Hagan lead an effort to rename the former College Hill Library, where Wednesday's dispute occurred, after Andrews, the late publisher of the Sentinel Bulletin.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.