TAMPA — Incumbent Kevin White will have a fight on his hands in 2010 if he wants to retain his Hillsborough County Commission seat.
Former state Sen. Les Miller has filed paperwork to challenge White in the Democratic primary election, saying Hillsborough County needs "effective and honorable leadership they can trust."
White, 44, is the District 3 commissioner representing mostly central and eastern Tampa. Both he and Miller are Democrats.
Miller, 57, director of community affairs at the University of South Florida's office of student ombudsman, served 14 years in the state Legislature, including two years as Democratic leader in the Senate. His entry into the race instantly makes it a high-profile local contest, and White signaled he won't hesitate to take the gloves off to retain his post.
He likened Miller's decision to seek office while working at USF to former state House Speaker Ray Sansom's taking a job at Northwest Florida State College. Sansom was forced to resign as state House speaker after revelations he took the unadvertised college job after steering millions in tax dollars to the school.
White also questioned why Miller would not run for the at-large Commission seat Republican Jim Norman will depart in 2010.
"It's amazing to see someone who has been a state representative and senator doesn't have enough confidence in himself to run in an open countywide race," White said.
Miller said his situation is not analogous to that of Sansom because he is holding the USF job before he seeks office. He said he will take leave time when he is campaigning, and has cleared that with superiors.
USF spokeswoman Lara Wade confirmed that Miller has spoken to the school's general counsel to ensure he follows all relevant policies and guidelines.
Miller said he is running for District 3, which has a heavy concentration of minority voters, because he knows and wants to work on the issues that affect its residents.
"I'm not going to get into a wallowing-in-the-mud campaign," Miller said. "I think this district needs to have someone run who knows about the concerns of this district, and will work hard on those concerns."
Those include affordable housing, health care, economic development and ensuring that the county is on solid financial ground, he said.
Miller ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. House seat won by Democrat Kathy Castor two years ago after leaving the state Senate. He is married to Tampa City Council member Gwen Miller.
He and White have clashed before.
As a commissioner serving on the Hillsborough County Hospital Authority, White has questioned Tampa General Hospital's success in ensuring minority-owned firms receive a fair share of contracts from the hospital. Miller was in charge of that program for the hospital before leaving for USF.
White has his own vulnerabilities. A former Tampa City Council member, he was forced to pay a fine after charging new Italian suits to a political campaign account. And he is currently facing a sexual discrimination complaint from a former aide.
Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.