TAMPA — When Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Mark Sharpe leaves office in November because of term limits, local transit advocates will lose their biggest ally on the county's governing body.
Sharpe, a Republican, was the commission's most vocal supporter of a 1-cent sales tax to pay for transportation improvements that voters turned down in 2010. Four years later, he's poised to leave office while local leaders are still working out the details to try again, perhaps in 2016.
Running to replace Sharpe in countywide District 7 in the Aug. 26 primary are one current commissioner, a few familiar faces from previous commission elections and newcomers looking to make their mark.
All say they recognize roads need improvement, and that Hillsborough needs more transportation options. They differ, however, on what exactly those options should be — and how the county should pay for them.
Commissioner Al Higginbotham, hoping to switch to Sharpe's countywide seat, has name recognition and a lot more money than his three opponents. Since the calendar flipped to August, he's started unloading his campaign treasury.
Higginbotham, 60, has spent nearly $170,000 in the race, more than $50,000 since Aug. 2, according to campaign reports. He's spent more this month than any of his opponents have throughout the entire campaign.
An opponent of the 2010 referendum when he represented conservative east Hillsborough's District 4, Higginbotham now says he will support whatever is proposed by a transportation policy group comprised of local elected officials.
Higginbotham objects to criticism that he's flipped his position to appeal to a broader voting base.
"I have always evaluated issues on their merits," he said.
None of the other three Republican candidates in District 7 have held public office before, although Don Kruse has run twice before for County Commission, losing in 2006 and 2008.
Kruse, 54, the president of the Beauty and Health Institute of Tampa, and Robin Lester, 52, managing partner of Florida Growth Partners consulting, both say they support a new referendum, and a mix of new transportation projects like light rail, expanded bus service and toll lanes.
Republican Tim Schock is the only District 7 candidate who says he's opposed to any new tax to finance transportation. Schock, 41, president of Lightning Capital Consulting, calls rail a "19th century solution for a 21st century problem" and thinks the county should be able to pay for, or get grant money, to cover improvements like additional express toll lanes.
"So many folks have gotten stuck on light rail as a solution here," he said. "It's not a panacea."
Former County Commission aides Mark Nash and Pat Kemp both question Higginbotham's commitment to transportation.
Nash, 52, said a new term for Higginbotham would be a "step backward for Hillsborough County." Kemp called Higginbotham's stance on transportation "an election-year conversion."
Nash, a business consultant and former aide of Democratic Commissioner Kevin Beckner, ran against Higginbotham in District 4 in 2012 and lost.
Before putting a sales tax referendum to vote, Nash would like to use existing public money to pay for a "demonstrator line," a direct rail line from downtown Tampa to Tampa International Airport. If that succeeds, Nash said, it would help build public support for the referendum and an expanded rail system.
Kemp, 57, a lawyer, is in favor of a 1-cent sales tax to pay for a mix of transit options across the county, more bus lines in some communities, rail in others.
"We're a big county, so it should be different answers in different places," Kemp said. "But the bottom line is, across the board, we are so far behind."
While Kemp and Nash are concerned about what it would mean for transportation in Hillsborough if Higginbotham replaces Sharpe in District 7, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a fellow Democrat, isn't worried that voters will eventually get a say on a new tax for transportation.
"There's enough momentum. … I think the County Commission is ready to give the voters a chance to have their voice heard on what they want, and that includes rail," said Buckhorn. "And I think that's a good legacy for Mark Sharpe to leave."
Contact Will Hobson at whobson @tampabay.com or (813) 226-3400. Follow @TheWillHobson.