TAMPA — Political newcomer Kevin Beckner has spent the better part of two years campaigning for a Hillsborough County Commission seat.
That work paid off Tuesday, as he held a comfortable lead in the at-large District 6 Democratic primary over two rivals, with most precincts reporting.
He ran well ahead of activist Denise Layne, making her third try at a commission seat. And strip club owner Joe Redner finished last in his eighth bid for elected office.
Beckner will face incumbent Commissioner Brian Blair in the November general election. Blair easily fended off opponent Don Kruse in the Republican primary.
In the only other primary race for the commission, Republican Ken Hagan held a commanding lead over neighborhood activist Tom Aderhold. That will effectively return Hagan to the commission for a third term, since his only remaining opponent is a write-in candidate.
The apparent incumbent victories were not surprises. Both Hagan and Blair enjoyed overwhelming fundraising advantages over their lesser known challengers.
Rather, the evening belonged to Beckner, who emerged from relative obscurity to challenge for his first elected office.
Beckner, 37, a financial planner, has spent 19 months campaigning door to door and raising money. In all, he took in more than $110,000, spending almost all of it on a series of slick mailers to reliable Democratic voters.
"We have build a wonderful grass roots organization," said Beckner, stopping short of declaring victory late Tuesday. "We're doing it the old-fashioned way, and that's by connecting with people."
His nearly empty war chest means he will have to start anew to mount a campaign against Blair, who had raised about $180,000 as of Friday but spent less than a third of that.
In his mailers and on the stump, Beckner has pledged to work across party lines to bring better planning, both in the way Hillsborough County is growing and spending tax dollars. He held himself out as a fresh face who would have a better chance of getting things done than his opponents, who have sometimes sparred with commissioners.
Layne, a longtime growth management activist, held back from accepting defeat late Tuesday. "We'll see what happens," she said.
In addition to his grass roots efforts, Beckner enjoyed active support from gay and lesbian activists. He is believed to be one of the first openly gay candidates for countywide office.
He faces in Blair, an incumbent who has voted against gay pride displays on county property and spoken out against student-led protests against bullying of gays in schools.
Blair, 51, has been a persistent critic of county spending and has pushed for property tax rate cuts, even before voters mandated them in January. He has faced criticism from environmentalists for his efforts to cut or streamline growth management rules.
He did not return a phone call Tuesday.
In the other race, Hagan's was leading by a 2-1 margin over Aderhold late Tuesday. He now faces a mysterious write-in candidate, Harold Gleason of Carrollwood, on Nov. 4.
But Gleason had his biggest impact Tuesday. His presence in the race confined the voting to District 2's 70,341 Republicans, and excluded 110,333 voters from other parties and those with no party affiliation.
Hagan, 40, did not return calls Tuesday night. Aderhold, president of the Keystone Civic Association, declined to comment.
Hagan has served on the commission since 2002. Last year, he spearheaded the county's decision to borrow $500-million for a variety of imminent transportation projects. He vowed in his next term to work on longer-range transportation upgrades, such as transit, plus provide more affordable housing and recreation facilities.
Aderhold accused Hagan of leading a "broken" commission that was beholden to developers and blind to a variety of pressing needs.
Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.