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Political parties seek to tap Tampa Bay's energized youth

TAMPA — The November election saw a remarkable surge of interest from young people, who not only jammed the polls but worked tirelessly on behalf of their presidential picks.

Their enthusiasm helped secure the White House for Barack Obama, whose own relative youth had pundits saying this marked the rise of a new generation to power.

And yet, the leadership in Hills­borough County could still be confused with the buffet line at an early-bird special. It is dominated by men and women in their 50s and 60s — even in their 70s.

Leaders of both major political parties now hope to harness all that youthful energy of 2008 to build up their stable of prospective local candidates.

"I think there's a good chance that in the next few cycles — four to eight years of time — we may see a new crop of candidates emerging, from this group of people that has been activated by the 2008 election," said University of Tampa government and world affairs professor Scott Paine. "Especially the people who rallied behind the Obama candidacy who are looking to see what they can do next."

Democrats have been buoyed by a passel of young organizers who rallied volunteers to canvass neighborhoods and helped build a database of voters that could be invaluable for future races.

"I think there's an infrastructure and I think it will grow," said Omar Kahn, 27, regional political director for the Obama campaign in western Florida, and a former University of South Florida student body president. He's weighing his own political options.

"Now it's time to build on all this momentum and energy and take advantage of it," he said.

The Republicans are mobilizing in kind. The newly elected Hillsborough Republican Executive Committee chairwoman, Deborah Cox-Roush, is arranging meetings with leaders of Young Republicans clubs and planning candidate training schools.

Longtime leaders

Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough Republican officials are forming a task force to meet with younger constituents and hear their views. Galvanizing younger members is a priority, Cox-Roush said.

"I was really excited to see this past election — it didn't matter what party — to see that the youth were engaged," she said.

At the local level, a band of veteran politicians has ruled the roost for years. Consider Hills­borough's constitutional officers: average age, 62.

Democrat Clerk of the Circuit Court Pat Frank, 79, has been a county commissioner, state representative and senator, and a School Board member. She won re-election this year without opposition. So did Republican Sheriff David Gee, the youngest of the lot at 49.

Property Appraiser Rob Turner, 57, and Tax Collector Doug Belden, 54, both Republicans, easily fended off challenges. Turner is going into his fourth term. It's the third for Belden.

GOP Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson, 56, lost to Democrat Phyllis Busansky, 71, a former county commissioner.

There were two notable exceptions in November: Democrat Kevin Beckner, 37, defeated GOP County Commissioner Brian Blair. And the Republican Party made a statement of sorts by picking 26-year-old Rachel Burgin, an aide to State Rep. Trey Traviesa, to replace him on the ballot after he dropped out. Burgin won easily, and is the youngest elected official in the county.

'New blood' welcome

"The future of the country, and certainly the Republican Party, rests with our young people," said Burgin's brother Josh, who made an unsuccessful bid for a state House seat four years ago when he was 28. "The reality is, we're still in a little bit of a reformulation mode after the election."

Pat Frank said she welcomes the youthful enthusiasm generated by the most recent election.

"You always need to have new blood," she said, while cautioning that change just for the sake of change isn't necessarily good.

Look at the result of term limits imposed on the state Legislature, she said. "I don't think that it's always resulted in change for the better," she said. "You want some people with experience."

Signs of youthful agitation are emerging in both parties.

Republicans are already jockeying for two state House seats — Districts 47 and 57 — which will be open in 2010 due to term limits. Among the prospects are lawyer Todd Marks, 38, and Angelette Aviles, 32, who works in her family marketing and public relations business. Aviles has been helping the party reach out to Hispanics. Marks founded the Westchase Republican Club.

"I think not only the youth voters, but the under-40 crowd, are disillusioned with the political process," Marks said. "They want a fresh perspective."

Lessons from Obama

Meanwhile, Democratic activists are planning boot camps for prospective young candidates to reinforce the lessons of the Obama campaign. That includes helping candidates sharpen their message to the specific constituency they hope to serve, said Matt Coppens, president of the USF Young Democrats club.

Christopher Rosbough, 30, is one of those potential contenders. A Tampa police officer and member of the Democratic Executive Committee, Rosbough noted that the City Council and County Commission include people who have shifted from seat to seat to beat term limits.

"I think the past eight years have shown us that the people we elect make a tremendous difference in the way we live our lives," Rosbough said. "We understand that the system is a broken system, and the only way we're going to make a difference is getting involved."

Scott Paine is a college professor now, but he did just that more than a decade ago, winning a seat on the City Council in 1991 at the age of 34.

"I think there is a somewhat cyclical and wavelike pattern of new blood coming into politics," he said. "We may be about due for one."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Political parties seek to tap Tampa Bay's energized youth 12/15/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 22, 2008 11:57am]
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