TAMPA — The lousy economy is making early birds out of Hillsborough County Commission candidates.
With nearly two years to go before the next county election, seven candidates already have filed notice that they intend to seek office. While not unusual in campaigns for higher office, that's a heavy showing this far out for local contests.
The reason: Formally filing notice with the Supervisor of Elections enables a candidate to begin raising money.
"I tell you the money crunch is on and everyone fears they're going to have trouble raising money next year," said University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus. "I think this is going to be one of those back-to-the-basics elections because of the money shortage."
In other words, political hopefuls are going to need to wear out a lot more shoe leather to get their message out. Getting the money to pay for costly mailers and other means of communicating with voters will be much harder.
The declared candidates so far don't deny it.
Former state Sen. Les Miller, who is challenging fellow Democrat and incumbent Kevin White, says he's already finding the dance for dollars more of a challenge this year. Past supporters are offering smaller checks and some are passing altogether, citing the tough times.
"The economy is playing a major factor," Miller said. "Anyone who tells you it's not is probably stretching the truth a little."
The early showing is revealing the potential for a game of musical chairs on the County Commission.
Republican Jim Norman, the senior member of the board, is leaving his at-large commission seat due to term limits. He will seek the District 12 state Senate seat that Republican Victor Crist is leaving, also due to term limits.
Republican Ken Hagan will forgo the final two years in his term as District 2 commissioner to run for Norman's seat. He already faces opposition from fellow Republican Don Kruse, who works in car sales and will make his third run for elected office.
"I need to come out early to raise funds," Kruse said. "It's sad to say."
Hagan's departure will touch off another election to fill his seat representing northern Hillsborough. Contrary to a widely circulating Internet report, the governor will not pick a replacement for Hagan so long as he meets a state mandated June 4, 2010, deadline to submit his irrevocable resignation letter. He said he intends to meet that deadline.
Victor Crist already has filed papers to replace Hagan on the commission. So has another Republican, urban planner Linda Pearson.
Hagan said he has typically filed early when seeking election so he can concentrate on raising money early and leave the time closer to the election for actual campaigning. That is particularly imperative this cycle, he said, since regular donors will also be getting hit up by candidates for other offices, from governor to Tampa mayor.
"With this difficult economic environment we're in, fundraising is going to be extremely challenging," Hagan said.
The only race that has not landed a candidate is the one for District 1, representing South Tampa and neighborhoods along the south county shoreline. It is currently held by Republican Rose Ferlita.
Ferlita is widely expected to run for Tampa mayor in 2011, and others are likely waiting to see if she actually does before deciding to run.
At-large Commissioner and Republican Mark Sharpe has filed paperwork to seek another term on the board, the last one up for election in 2010. He has no opposition so far.
In addition to being able to raise money, Sharpe said he wants to have plenty of time to tell people about his focus on economic development, transportation and shrinking the size of government.
"The realities are there is just not a lot of money out there," Sharpe said. "So you've got to work longer to get your message out."
Bill Varian can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3387.