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Challenger makes third run at a Pinellas County Commission seat

Lots of contenders who suffer defeat after entering the political ring drift quietly away, but not Clearwater's Norm Roche.

Roche is the Energizer Bunny of local politics, always running. He lost a bid to Ronnie Duncan for the Pinellas County Commission in 2004, taking 45 percent of the vote. Two years later, Calvin Harris clubbed him in the Democratic primary.

And Tuesday, voters will decide between Roche and GOP incumbent Karen Seel in the County Commission District 5 race.

It's his third consecutive attempt at winning a commission seat.

"He's a passionate man," said his wife, Joy, a theater teacher at Clearwater High, "and he still believes that one person who is willing to do the right thing can make a difference."

In going up against Seel, who has been on the commission since 1999, Roche has chosen an opponent widely considered one of the most hard-working, competent and public-minded members of the board.

And her campaign is loaded with cash from the county's established GOP donor network. Recent campaign reports show Seel's taken in $84,731 compared with Roche's $15,135. There's also a no party candidate in the race, Jake Mullens, who hasn't reported any fundraising activity since loaning himself $4,010 in June.

Roche said it's not really about Seel, whom he respects, but change. He's not running against her, he'll say, but the entire commission.

"We need some fresh minds and perspectives on that board," he said. "And I'm prepared to serve."

Roche, 46, knows government. He spent 10 years doing community outreach for the county utilities department. Unlike many who enter politics crying for change, he has detailed policy proposals in areas like affordable housing, mass transit and resource management.

He blasts the commission for complacency and rubber stamp approvals, like the unanimous decision least year to buy land from Property Appraiser Jim Smith without discussion. The deal led to a grand jury report that shook county government. He also believes in term limits, noting that in 1996 Pinellas voters called for them, only to have courts overrule their wishes.

His message: For the first time in nearly a decade you have a choice in this district. Seel has become set in her ways. It's time for someone new.

It's the voters, Roche said, who will angrily bring up the Smith deal.

Seel, 50, said the vote to buy Smith's land for $225,000, nearly four times its assessed value, has weighed on her, but she doubts the vote would have gone differently even if she had spoken up.

Seel said the county administrator who later resigned over the scandal assured her the purchase was justified and had been handled responsibly.

At the time of the vote, Seel said she did not know the role the county attorney, later fired, had played in orchestrating a deal. Nor did she know that Smith was seeking to use money from the county for a down payment on a new home.

The lapse was particularly galling, Seel said, because she prides herself on not letting things get past her and on her efforts to open up the workings of county government to the public.

It's true that to a greater degree than her colleagues Seel will ask questions in public meetings on agenda items that might otherwise be approved without comment. Earlier this month, Seel's was the lone commission vote against giving the county administrator the authority to spend up to $250,000 on real estate purchases without board approval.

For Seel, Roche's criticisms of the commission don't apply in her case and she wonders about his credibility.

Seel points to Roche's 2006 Democratic primary against Harris, who now sits on the commission. In that contest, Roche's brother entered the race as a write-in candidate at the last minute. The move closed the primary to all but Democratic voters and nullified Harris' expected support from Republicans.

Many in political circles, both Democrats and Republicans, were appalled. For Seel, the move raises questions.

"Is he really and truly a serious and credible candidate?" she asked. "Does that help engender public trust, that the brothers played shenanigan games in the democratic process?"

Roche has defended the move, saying he and his brother discussed the tactic, but that his brother acted alone.

In an interview this week, Roche said the move was meant to "expose the tricks" of local politics, namely that some area Democrats rely on Republican support and that it's pretty easy to close a primary in Florida.

Roche said his only regret is not having had the financial resources to counteract the "distortion" of the move by his critics and the press.

Joy Roche, 47, said her husband's political campaigning can be stressful, and their children have asked why daddy keeps losing. But he's a lesson for them. "You only lose if you don't try," she said.

County Commission District 5

The single-member District 5 includes most of Clearwater, Largo and the beach from Sand Key to Indian Shores. Commissioners are elected to four-year terms. They oversee an annual budget of roughly $2-billion. They are paid $90,934 a year.

Democrat Norm Roche, 46, lost in the Democratic primary for an at-large seat in 2006 to Commissioner Calvin Harris. In 2004, he took 45 percent of the vote in a race for another at-large seat won by Ronnie Duncan. He spent 10 years doing community outreach for the county utilities department and now does business development for Williams Earth Sciences Inc. in Largo.

Republican Karen Seel, 50, was appointed to the commission in 1999 by Gov. Jeb Bush. Before that, she served on the Clearwater City Council. A Clearwater native, Seel has an extensive record of community involvement.

Challenger makes third run at a Pinellas County Commission seat 10/29/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 3, 2008 9:01pm]
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