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The man who dared to oppose the norm

There used to be just five members of the Hillsborough County Commission. This made it a bargain when it came time to bribe them — you only had to buy three.

Sure enough, in 1982 the feds popped three of the five, catching them with the dough red-handed.

The scandal led to reform and a seven-member commission. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the board was in the hands of a new generation of urban, progressive-to-liberal Democrats.

How strange those times seem now. There was the newcomer Phyllis Busansky, helping to get a tax increase to provide health care for the poor. Tax increases. For the poor.

There was Ed Turanchik, advocate of mass transit and change-the-world planning. There was a sober young good-government type named Pam Iorio. There was an incorruptible iconoclast named Jan Platt.

But the days of these idealistic Democrats, like that of the dinosaur, were numbered. Beyond the city limits a new universe was rising, populated by old-guard county folks and new-guard suburbanites not especially interested in grand, taxpayer-funded visions.

This brings us to Ralph Hughes.

Hughes was a self-made county businessman whom, it turns out, was a "blogger" long before there was an Internet. His genius lay in the mass-mailed letters that arrived regularly in the mailboxes of movers and shakers across the county, bearing the return address of his Cast-Crete Corp.

"TO: INTERESTED PARTIES (PLEASE COPY OTHERS)," he usually began, before launching into the latest critique. He was a one-man editorial board, a pamphleteer, a voice crying out in the wilderness (or at least out in the county) against taxes, impact fees, and big government in general.

It was easy at first to dismiss him as a crank or a gadfly. But Hughes was the rare citizen-critic who knew how things worked. As time passed, his influence grew; his word mattered more; he put his money where his mouth was, and he took an active hand in Hillsborough affairs.

It worked, too, pretty much as intended by Hughes and others who thought like him. One seat at a time, the commission was restocked.

The side effect was a certain amount of buffoonery by the new officeholders, not all of whom were brain surgeons. The focus of the Hillsborough County Commission devolved from the needs of an urban county of 1-million to whether there was something dirty on cable-access TV, or a gay-pride display at the public library, or who would get the Bucs tickets, or how to dismantle the protection of wetlands, or cowing and berating the professional staff into meek and numb submission.

But those bursts of lowbrow thuggery were always the sideshow, not the real point. The real point was that Hughes helped blunt what he saw as a tax-raising, bureaucrat-loving, dangerous government. He won.

The urban Democrats represented a reaction against the good old boys. Hughes was part of a counter-reaction that replaced them in turn. Today in Hillsborough politics there's even a "counter-counter-reaction," a campaign to create an elected county mayor, to neutralize the commission built by Hughes & Co.

Ralph Hughes will not be around to see how it turns out, though. He died Friday at the age of 77, and I was sorry to hear it.

The man who dared to oppose the norm 07/02/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 8, 2008 5:26pm]
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