TAMPA — The mail advertisement depicts a hand, wearing a white surgical glove, about to snatch a wad of $100 bills from the back pocket of an unsuspecting man.
"Flaming Liberal STACY WHITE," it says in bold white letters about the staunchly conservative Hillsborough County School Board member. "He's a doctor of surgically removing taxpayer dollars and transplanting the cash to bureaucrats."
On the other side, White's face appears next to that of President Barack Obama's. "Two peas in a pod," it says.
White is one of three Republicans vying to replace County Commissioner Al Higginbotham in east Hillsborough's District 4. The winner of the primary, open to Republican voters only, faces a write-in candidate in November.
With little separating the candidates' stands on big issues, the race took a turn this month with Aug. 26, primary day, approaching. Attack ads have started appearing in mailboxes across this predominantly Republican district, assailing the conservative credentials of each candidate.
The mail pieces assert:
• White is a liberal because schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia got bonuses while White was on the School Board. In truth, the bonuses were negotiated in her contract before White was elected.
• Candidate Rick Cochran is a "closet Democrat" because unions have donated $15,000 to him. Cochran received campaign money from police and fire unions, but he doesn't think this should surprise Republicans — he is a retired Tampa police detective and former union representative.
• Candidate Janet Dougherty's conservative bona fides are lacking because she's supported by Democrats like Tampa City Council Chairman Charlie Miranda and former County Commissioner Ed Turanchik. Dougherty, who has been active in local GOP circles for more than 20 years, is supported by plenty of Republicans, too, including longtime Tax Collector Doug Belden.
The candidates say they have nothing to do with the ads against their opponents and point fingers at each other. Officials at the political action committees funding the ads did not return multiple calls last week.
Ads attacking White and Cochran were both paid for by Floridians for Accountability, a Broward County-based committee chaired by Amy Rose, a registered Democrat and president of Win on the Ground Consulting. Rose did not return calls.
The ad attacking Dougherty was paid for by Nature Coast Conservatives, a Tallahassee committee chaired by political consultant Mark Zubaly that previously got involved in a commission race in Pasco County. Zubaly, a registered Republican, also did not return calls for comment.
Regardless of who is orchestrating the ads, their focus on the trivial underlies a fact of the race: that the three opponents see mostly eye-to-eye.
The biggest difference among them is on transportation, where all agree more money is needed for improvements, but only Dougherty is open to a 1-cent sales tax to help pay for them. Cochran and White oppose a new tax, saying they can find the money in the county's budget.
All three call themselves fiscally conservative and say they would look for ways to cut the county's budget.
Dougherty, 52, an environmental consultant from Wimauma, touts her experience from years volunteering on land use and water management boards. She thinks how the county doles out contracts is one of several areas of county government that could be improved.
"I think it could be streamlined, and way more efficient," Dougherty said.
Cochran, 49, retired this year after 24 years with the Tampa Police Department, and also served five years in the Air Force. He emphasized his experience patrolling local streets and his long career in public service.
"I bring decisiveness," Cochran said. "As a police officer … very quickly you have to assess a situation, and decide if someone is going to live, or die, or go to jail."
White, 42, touts himself as the "most conservative" candidate, pointing to his attempt to start School Board meetings with prayer and his opposition to domestic partnership registries, which can extend some benefits to gay couples.
On the campaign trail, all acknowledge they have to talk to voters about issues that will likely not directly come up before the County Commission.
Cochran advertises his support of gun rights. Dougherty talks about how she's antiabortion. All three mention their Christian faith.
"It's not going to matter, but people want to know this," Dougherty said. "People want to know who you are as a person."
Contact Will Hobson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400. Follow @TheWillHobson.