TAMPA — Ralph Hughes may be best known for donating millions of dollars to promote fiscally conservative political candidates and causes.
But his death about a week ago leaves a hole in Hillsborough County's political landscape greater than his election-year philanthropy.
In many ways, fiscal conservatives in Hillsborough County lost their main, if self-appointed, spokesman and lobbyist.
"He was much bigger than his checkbook," said Rich Reidy, an aide to County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan, though speaking while wearing his Republican Party activist hat. "The fundraising void will be much easier to fill than the one left by the man."
Hughes, 77, died June 27 of an apparent heart attack.
For more than two decades, he led a singular campaign against taxes and government regulation. He helped get like-minded people elected with his money, then kept them on task once they got in office.
"Without a question, I think there's going to be a void," said former Hillsborough Commissioner Joe Chillura. "I'm not sure that people like Ralph are around as much as they were in his day."
He was dismissed as a gadfly in the mid 1980s, one of a handful of regulars who would show up at county meetings to rail at commissioners. Hughes' ax: impact fees charged to new construction, and taxes generally.
But as the population swelled in unincorporated areas, Hughes gave voice to its increasingly conservative leanings.
A voice grows louder
In 1995, he led the group Enough is Enough, which helped defeat a pair of ballot items to raise sales taxes for jail and school construction. A subsequent proposal, which included a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, passed narrowly the following year.
Two years later, Hughes joined with a group to back a little-known newcomer, Tim Curtis, in the Republican primary against Commissioner Dottie Berger. Berger's sin: Agreeing to put the sales tax measure on the ballot.
Curtis won, though he was ultimately defeated in the general election by longtime pol Pat Frank. Reputations were burnished nonetheless.
East-county businessman Sam Rashid was credited with running Curtis' campaign, while Hughes contributed and helped raise money to pay for it.
"When he believed in a candidate or a cause, he believed in it so passionately, and he threw himself into it heart and soul," said Sun City Center Republican Club chief Dee Williams, who was also part of the group. "He brought others with him."
Hughes ran Cast-Crete Corp., a company that sells building materials to the construction industry. As his business boomed, he, his family and their affiliate businesses and partners continued pumping thousands into political campaigns, particularly for the commission.
Hughes and his affiliates donated more than $40,000 to County Commission candidates in 2004 and 2006 alone.
With increasing regularity, his candidates won. Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson, Tax Collector Doug Belden, state Sen. Ronda Storms and six of seven current county commissioners have benefited from his backing.
And he would call them regularly at the office once they got elected to express his views on the issues. While his focus was Hillsborough, he contributed to other campaigns and could regularly be spotted meeting with legislators in Tallahassee.
A man of many letters
But his signature contribution may be his letters. On his company's stationery, Hughes mailed countless of them to community leaders and other "interested parties" arguing the benefits of growth and lower taxes.
Topics ranged from "The Epitome of Waste and Inefficiency" in a June 2002 missive about the county's bus agency, to the "myths" of the "anti-growth crowd."
He mailed the letters year-round, but ramped up during election season, later adding e-mails to his repertoire. In them, he promoted candidates of his liking and bashed those who were not.
Hughes steadfastly refused to discuss how many letters he mailed during election season and to whom. A lawyer for him once told the state elections division they sometimes numbered more than 1,000.
How effective they were is unknown, but they angered candidates who were targeted. Some felt they bent state rules requiring disclosure of how much is spent by people or groups to influence an election.
"Ralph Hughes believed passionately and was willing to spend money to advance his candidates and to advocate for his candidate," said Bob Buckhorn, who was the target of those mailings when he unsuccessfully ran against Brian Blair for a County Commission spot in 2004. "Unfortunately the ends don't justify the means."
Hughes was cleared of wrongdoing by the Florida Elections Commission over mailings he sent out in 2004 against a Pasco County sales tax initiative. He nevertheless subsequently created a political committee to disclose expenditures, though it had not yet been active.
It was started with $1-million from Hughes' company.
"He was very unique," said Republican political consultant Mark Proctor. "He would take an issue, and he would put his money, his words and his actions behind it. I don't see anybody like that in the future."
Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.