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Pasco commission race keeps clean, civilized tone

Did you expect a rollicking campaign to replace longtime County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand?

After all, it's the first time since 1984 that Hildebrand isn't running for District 3. Many folks thought the rare open seat would attract a no-holds-barred fight.

It hasn't turned out that way.

The campaign between former School Board member Kathryn Starkey and utility contractor Matt Murphy has been decidedly sleepy. Both have mostly stuck to positive talking points and they actually agree on several issues. That contrasts with testy contests in the August primary that resulted in narrow victories for two incumbent commissioners.

"There hasn't been a brawl," Murphy said, chuckling.

Said Starkey: "We've had a very nice, clean, civilized campaign."

And the rare point of contention is Starkey's ties to the development community. Her family recently won approval of a major development plan for the remaining 2,500 acres of Starkey Ranch near Odessa.

Votes concerning that project likely will come before the commission in the coming months.

"I can be more objective because I'm not so tied to the special interests," said Murphy, a Democrat.

Even if Starkey recuses herself from votes that would be of benefit to her family, Murphy said that means that "one-fifth of the county doesn't get a vote on some of the most important issues in our county."

Murphy also noted that a significant portion of Starkey's campaign contributions come from development interests. "I don't think if she was going to be tough on them that would be the case. That's just a concern."

Starkey, a Republican, pointed to her earlier work on the county's billboard and landscaping ordinances that seek to make the county prettier but can sometimes drive up costs for developers. Citing a "steep learning curve," she also said it is helpful to have a commissioner who understands the development process.

"I could be in an uncomfortable position dealing with friends," she said. "But that is part of the job. Every commissioner has that. I'm confident they'll understand if I don't necessarily agree with their position."

Starkey has the support of much of Pasco's political establishment and holds a wide fundraising lead. Through the first two weeks of October, she raised $103,000 and still had $38,000 left to spend. Murphy collected $16,600 and had about $2,800 on hand.

She is using that financial advantage to help make the closing case to voters. She said her campaign recently mailed 63,000 fliers to people who requested absentee ballots. Murphy said he also recently sent out mailers and will be "hitting any event that's got people at it" in the closing days.

More than 36,000 Pasco voters have already cast mail-in ballots, and early voting began Saturday. Election Day is Nov. 6.

Murphy acknowledged his campaign has been hampered by his job, which requires him to travel frequently to the northeast. For example, he had to miss a candidate debate organized by the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce because of a last-minute meeting in Maryland. He promised that, if elected, he would resign from his job to focus full-time as a commissioner.

But he also called his business experience an asset. He is a project manager for a utility contractor that does work for city and county governments. Before that, he was a civil engineer in the U.S. Air Force. He said that gives him in-depth knowledge about municipalities' infrastructure needs.

"I'm very familiar with what the needs are," he said. "I'm in business every day. I'm not a part timer."

Former Commissioner Michael Cox supports Murphy but is also friends with Starkey. He attributed the low-key tone to the fact that both candidates respect each other.

"Matt got into the race when there was a bunch of the wackos in the Republican Party running," he said. "Kathryn was not in the race. By the time she got in, it was really too late to do something else."

In a five-person GOP primary in August, Starkey benefitted from her six years as a School Board member and her well-known family name. She handily won with 43 percent of the vote, more than twice the share of her closest challenger.

State Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, said the quiet campaign favors Starkey, who has a higher name identification among voters. Corcoran, who defeated Starkey in a heated House primary election in 2010, praised her and others who "campaign like they're 10 points down even though they feel like they're in a strong position."

"Kathryn works it," he said. "Trust me, I know."

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

Pasco commission race keeps clean, civilized tone 10/27/12 [Last modified: Saturday, October 27, 2012 12:52pm]
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