TAMPA — Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman has been on the winning side of two contentious transportation votes this year.
But Democrat and airline pilot Jeff Zampitella is staking his underdog campaign on the hope that voters believe she was on the wrong side in each case.
Zampitella is challenging Murman, a Republican, for her Hillsborough County District 1 seat. And transportation — a topic that dominates debate in government and business circles here — is where he thinks Murman is vulnerable.
"Sandy talks on both sides of the issue all the time, but the voting record stands," Zampitella said.
This year, Murman voted for the Florida Department of Transportation to continue with a $6 billion highway and toll expansion known as Tampa Bay Express, or TBX. And she voted against a half-cent sales tax hike that would've pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into transit projects over the next 30 years.
Zampitella is a vocal opponent of TBX and supported the half-cent sales tax proposal.
But Murman said in each case it's much more complicated.
Her TBX vote, she said, was for allowing the project to continue to the design phase, not construction. That won't start until 2019 and the Metropolitan Planning Organization, on which Murman has a seat, has to vote each year to keep TBX on its project list for the state to move forward with it.
Murman said Hillsborough County was not ready to go to residents with a referendum to raise the sales tax for transportation, which is why she voted against the half-cent surcharge. It needed a more robust strategy to bring transit to Tampa and the county, she said.
She hopes that after the completion of a premium transit study the county will have a better plan to take to voters and ask for more money to pay for it.
"I'm a big supporter of transit, always have been," Murman said. "But it has to be done right because you only get one shot."
Murman, who previously represented South Tampa in the state House, was first elected to the county commission in 2010. That was the same year Hillsborough voters overwhelmingly rejected a one-cent sales tax increase for transportation — Murman opposed it, but again said she was for mass transit in theory.
She ran unopposed in 2012 and did not face a primary opponent this year.
In her quest for a third term, Murman has amassed a war chest of $301,000 and spent $108,000 through Oct. 14, according to campaign finance reports. Zampitella, meanwhile, has raised about $25,000 and spent $12,735.
Despite the daunting financial disadvantage — not to mention the name-recognition deficit as a newcomer going up against a 20-year politician — Zampitella remains encouraged.
For one, about 9,000 more Democrats than Republicans have voted so far in Hillsborough. And District 1, which stretches from Lutz to Ruskin and includes most of coastal Hillsborough and South Tampa, is as politically purple as it gets. During the 2012 general election, 55,000 Democrats and 56,275 Republicans voted in the district.
But the Democratic Party of Hillsborough County has so far prioritized winning a different commission race over trying to knock off Murman: the District 6 seat that belongs to outgoing Democratic Commissioner Kevin Beckner.
The local party has pumped $23,000 into Democrat Pat Kemp's race against Republican Tim Schock, versus just $1,500 for Zampitella.
"Kemp is trying to get on a seat that is being vacated by a Democrat and I understand the priority," Zampitella said. "It's a top priority for a party to keep this seat blue."
Zampitella's advocacy for transportation is rooted in his experience as a commercial airline pilot. He often speaks glowingly of the pedestrian- and bike-friendly cities he encounters between flights. Across the world, he sees cities leveraging technology to build modern transportation networks that utilize rail services and buses.
He may be new to politics, but he said he's learning quickly. He already realized one mistake he would love to go back and correct.
"I would do everything the same," Zampitella said, "but I would start earlier."
Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] Follow @scontorno.