Monday, October 15, 2018
Politics

Unopposed candidates across Tampa Bay automatically win their races

More than a dozen politicians across Tampa Bay won election on Friday without a single voter casting a ballot.

How did they manage to pull this off?

No one ran against them.

Friday marked the filing deadline for candidates to qualify for the November ballot, launching what is expected to be a heated political season.

But candidates who found themselves unopposed after Friday's noon cutoff don't have to bother ordering campaign signs or knocking on doors. They're automatically the winner of that office.

In Pinellas County, that includes three of the four County Commission seats up for election this year. Janet Long, Karen Seel and Ken Welch will all be re-elected without a challenge. Only Charlie Justice will face an election this fall, from Mike Mikurak, a retired businessman and political novice.

Earlier this week, Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller was slated to have a primary opponent on Aug. 30 and a potential Republican challenger in the fall. But Democrat and Seminole Heights activist Kimberly Overman dropped out Thursday and Republican Willie Lawson didn't qualify. So Miller won't have a race after all. All the other commissioner races there are contested.

Between Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties, there are 12 constitutional officers — which includes jobs like county sheriff and tax collector — who are running unopposed. All but one are incumbents.

Statehouse races aren't immune to lack of participation, either. Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, and Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, are two of several local lawmakers who will head back to Tallahassee next year without having to see a campaign through November.

Many locally elected positions are relatively well-paid. Commissioners in Pinellas and Hillsborough make about $95,000 a year and constitutional officers there pull in well over six-figures. State lawmakers earn a more modest salary of about $29,000.

To be sure, there are many competitive and notable races to follow for the next 41/2 months. But what explains the lack of contested seats?

For local political parties in charge of recruiting candidates, sometimes it's about prioritizing which seats are winnable and steering people to those races.

Funding is limited, said Nick DiCeglie, chair of the Pinellas County Republican Executive Committee, and they have to prioritize where they want to aggressively recruit.

Take Welch's District 7 seat in Pinellas County.

"You look at registered Democrats versus registered Republicans," DiCeglie said. "It would be very difficult for any Republican, regardless of name identification, to be competitive in that particular district."

Barriers can be high for those not backed by party money. Kevin Carrier, who owns a cleaning service in Tampa, planned to challenge Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee in the Republican primary.

But Carrier, a Kentucky transplant, balked at the $10,135 filing fee to run for sheriff. Carrier said he ran for constable in Louisville and it only cost $60.

Candidates can pay the fee out of their campaign coffers but Carrier only raised $300. Alternatively, candidates can collect signatures to qualify for the ballot. For a countywide position like sheriff, a candidate had to turn in 7,660 signatures by May 23 and pay 10 cents a signature for the Supervisor of Elections Office to verify the petitions.

"I'm not a rich man," Carrier said. "The signatures were just too hard to get. People don't want to put their name on things. And I don't blame them."

Even if he had qualified for the ballot, Carrier would have been going up against an incumbent with a lot of name recognition and a huge war chest. Gee raised $372,000 — the highest reported fundraising total in a county race since at least 2006 — for a re-election bid in which he barely had an opponent.

Similarly, County Tax Collector Doug Belden raised $208,000 for a race in which he was ultimately unopposed. In the coming weeks he'll return that money to his donors and whatever isn't claimed will be turned over to charity.

That kind of war chest can scare off opponents, but Belden said he's just being prepared. He boasted that his contributions demonstrate support from all over the community and both sides of the aisle.

"You never know what's going to happen," Belden, a Republican, said.

Former Hillsborough County Commissioner Jan Platt said constitutional officers are mostly manager positions and unless there is a controversy or an open seat, they often don't attract challengers. It's a quirk of Florida that jobs like property appraiser and supervisor of elections are elected, partisan positions, and she hoped that might change some day.

"That would be a great reform for someone running for state office," she said.

The projected November showdown between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton is likely to take even more limelight away from local races than presidential races already do.

Voters are consuming national political news right now and that means county commission races don't get attention, said Brian Aungst Jr., a Clearwater attorney and legal council for the Pinellas County Republican Executive Committee.

"People are pretty apolitical when it comes to county commission races and city municipal elections because they don't even know who the players are," he said. "I would unfortunately venture to say most folks couldn't even tell you who their mayor is."

Times reporters Josh Solomon and Dan DeWitt contributed to this report. Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] and Tracey McManus at [email protected]

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