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Hillsborough challenger counts on election chief bungling job

TAMPA — It has been 12 years since Phyllis Busansky held elected office.

Now, after two failed attempts to win a congressional seat, the former Hillsborough County commissioner is gearing up her campaign to try to become supervisor of elections.

Busansky, a Democrat, announced in February that she'll challenge Republican Buddy Johnson, who has made headlines for not notifying voters of polling site changes, not counting votes, failing to pay property taxes, and avoiding a subpoena server for nearly three weeks.

Busansky, 71, says she has read the stories with dismay.

"Some of it is funny. Some of it is not. When you don't pay your taxes, that's not funny," she said. "Not being able to find the supervisor of elections for 18 days, who is your public servant, is not funny at all."

Her campaign strategy at this point is simple, she said: "Just let him keep going."

Busansky's first campaign piece bears the slogan "Restoring Confidence" and talks about assuring voters that "elections results are fairly recorded and reported."

"The issue is competency," she said.

But David Storck, chairman of the Hillsborough County Republican Party, said Johnson doesn't have to worry about Busansky.

He calls her a tax-and-spend liberal and a "retread" from the 1990s who got "whacked" in Hillsborough County when she ran for the U.S. House of Representatives against Republican Gus Bilirakis in 2006.

"Buddy Johnson's doing a fine job," Storck said. "We have a grass roots organization in Hillsborough County second to none, and we will rock and roll when it comes election time."

Michael Steinberg, however, who is chairman of the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee, said Johnson's missteps make him an easy target for Busansky.

"Buddy's a nice man. I enjoy his company when I have lunch with him or see him," Steinberg said. "But I think he's vulnerable because he's made some errors in judgment in the last few years."

He points to a payment Johnson made to a former employee in exchange for a promise not to sue or talk about office operations.

Busansky is running her campaign out of an office in her Carrollwood home with the help of volunteers. She has no paid staff, as she did with her most recent congressional run.

She says she won't kick into high gear until after the August primaries. But she is speaking with civic and business groups and attending voter education meetings, where she emphasizes the importance of management skills and quality control for an elections supervisor. She also pledges to reduce staff turnover in the elections office, and make it more accessible to voters.

The front entrance of the downtown elections office, where visitors speak to a receptionist through a window in a wall, is "bizarre," she said.

"It's called being voter-friendly," she said. "Isn't that what it's all about?"

Early indications are that Busansky will be well-financed for the contest against Johnson.

After jumping into the race, she raised $34,178 in two months, more money than Johnson raised in nine months of fundraising. She counts Republicans among her donors, including business owner Sandy MacKinnon, who contributed to Johnson's campaign in 2004.

MacKinnon, his wife and family foundation donated $1,500 to help Busansky win the post. He declined to comment on Johnson's job performance. But he said if Busansky, a longtime friend, wasn't part of the mix he probably would not have contributed to anyone.

Others remain loyal to Johnson, a three-term state representative who was appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2003 to the elections post when Pam Iorio resigned to run for mayor.

Dick Beard, a developer and prominent Republican, is among Johnson's supporters.

"He came by and asked me if I could help, and I said, 'Of course,' " Beard said. He described Johnson, a co-founder of BuddyFreddy's restaurants, as "generally a good guy" and the news stories about Johnson as a "witch hunt."

"It's a very political season, so I don't pay too much attention to that stuff until somebody's done something illegal or improper," Beard said.

He said if another Republican was in the race, he might support that person. But with the qualifying deadline less than a month away, Johnson is the only GOP option.

"I just don't write checks to Democrats." Beard said.

Johnson, 56, said other than some fundraising, he isn't thinking much about his campaign.

Instead, he's working to register voters and demonstrating new optical scan voting machines in advance of the August primary elections.

"I am completely focused on doing my job and doing it properly," he said. "If I do that, my campaign will take care of itself."

Janet Zink can be reached
at jzink@sptimes.com or
(813) 226-3401.

Hillsborough challenger counts on election chief bungling job 05/26/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 27, 2008 2:18pm]

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