TAMPA — The economy isn't just front and center in the presidential race.
It's also a central part of the debate between the candidates in one of the most hotly contested Hillsborough County Commission races this fall.
Republican incumbent Brian Blair is seeking a second term as the at-large District 6 commissioner, touting a record as a tax and fee cutter. He's been a steady advocate for the construction industry as well, arguing that it puts people to work who are hurting desperately now.
"Nobody's watched the taxpayers' pocketbooks more than I have or lowered taxes more than I have," Blair said.
Democratic challenger Kevin Beckner, a financial planner, said he will watch taxpayer dollars, too. But he said Blair promotes short-term, self-promoting actions over crafting a long-term vision for Hillsborough County.
He has hammered Blair as being in the pocket of developers to the detriment of the community. He says he would seek to diversify the local job base to buffer against future financial downturns.
"From a global county perspective, where do we want to be 20, 30, 40 years from now?" Beckner asks. "I am suggesting that I am more focused on the real quality-of-life issues, not just for today but for tomorrow."
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Blair, 51, is a former wrestler and Gold's Gym owner who won the seat in his second try for a commission job. He pledged to be a "uniter not a divider" and to "squeeze nickels into dimes."
He has mostly lived up to his promise to be a watchdog of government spending, frequently challenging the administration. But he has riled environmental activists and other social interest and community groups.
His key objective this campaign: to "foster the economy by keeping taxes as low as possible so our citizens can spend their own money."
In 2006, he was on the losing end of a vote that approved a $4,000 school impact fee hike charged to home construction. Later that summer, he championed a 1-mill cut to county property taxes to help offset runups due to sharply rising home prices. He lost that effort, but rallied behind a 0.6-mill cut that was a county record even if it still raised county tax collections.
"If you're in a wrestling match and you're about to get your arm broken, you tap out and say, 'I give up,' " Blair said at the time, adding he had no choice but to support the best option that could win approval.
Blair has advocated streamlining review of construction. His campaign contributions, heavily supported by development interest, vouch for the approval of developers.
Blair argues that, like impact fees, slow reviews raise the cost of construction and drive home and business prices up, making both unaffordable for blue-collar workers.
But environmental groups rallied when commissioners lined up to end county review of construction in or near wetlands while Blair was chairman of the Environmental Protection Commission. Commissioners backed down, supporting a streamlining of the review process instead.
Blair has raised both hackles and praise for appearing on national television to blast a school district decision ending days off timed with Christian religious holidays. He argued that the country was founded on Judeo-Christian values and those who didn't like it should leave.
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Beckner, 37, a former police officer who ran a music entertainment business before going into financial planning, said Blair spends too much time on such wedge issues. Even his tax-cut campaigning is self-serving at times.
He noted that Blair has campaigned for tax cuts while pushing for the cleanup of a chain of lakes, including the one behind his home, even though it wasn't high on county priority lists. Blair also opposed reversing the doubling of commissioners' car allowances to $600, Beckner said.
"He calls himself a public servant, but seems more to be self-servant," Beckner said. "As far as diversity in the community, he talks about how it pertains to his world. There's more to this world and to this community than just Brian."
Beckner said his first priority as a commissioner would be developing a consensus on a vision for the community's future. Declining to say whether he thinks taxes should be cut or raised, he said those decisions should be based on the county's long-term goals.
As a financial planner, he said, he first asks clients their long-term goals: Getting kids through college, retiring before age 65. Then he looks at what the clients make, their savings, and recommends a strategy to get there.
He said he would work similarly as a commissioner.
"If you fail to plan, you plan to fail," Beckner said.
He offered a few items he thinks should be long-term community goals based on what he's heard from nearly 20 months of campaigning for the seat.
Beckner said he would seek to judge construction proposals based on whether they enhance the community rather than simply maximize developer profits.
He said he wants to find better ways to ensure homes remain affordable and that there are a range of employment options so that young college graduates stay in Tampa rather than look for homes and jobs elsewhere.
Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.