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Verdict against Hillsborough commissioner resonating in different ways

TAMPA — A jury may have found that Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White sexually discriminated against a former aide.

But a different jury is still out on how the outcome of the trial will affect his political career.

One might assume the verdict, and the trial's mounting legal bills that likely will fall to taxpayers, would spell an end to White's ambitions. And they may.

But don't write White's obituary yet, say some political observers.

White is still an incumbent, with all the fundraising and publicity-generating benefits that come with that. Facing a re-election bid that's more than a year away, he is easily outraising a seasoned fellow Democratic challenger.

Voters also have a history of forgiving their elected leaders' transgressions, and Hillsborough County is no exception.

White's immediate fate will ultimately depend on voters in his urban commission district, a majority of whom are black or Hispanic. There, some of his supporters are spreading their own take on the verdict: That it was reached by a nearly all-white jury and heralded by the white, establishment press eager to sully a rising black star.

"The real jury for Kevin White is not going to be the jury that wasn't his peers," said Joe Robinson, a political activist who sat through much of the trial in support of White. "It's going to be the voters next year when they're voting for him."

Dissecting a verdict

Details of White's trial rippled through his commission district. Its residents are still trying to process the outcome, and how it shapes their views of him.

"You see a community that is very confused and divided," said Frank Reddick, president of the Northview Hills Civic Association and a former Tampa City Council appointee. "I think his chance of winning or having a political future will be based on how he transcends things between now and the election."

White, 44, was accused by former aide Alyssa Ogden of firing her in 2007 for refusing his repeated sexual advances. He denied the claims.

Much of the attention during the trial and in the community focused on a single allegation. Ogden, then 22, said White lured her on a business trip to Atlanta days into the job then tried to share her hotel bed.

It was White's defense that raised eyebrows. He claimed he helped get Ogden to Atlanta at the request of the then 77-year-old, politically influential chairman of the Florida Sentinel Bulletin, C. Blythe Andrews Jr., who he was meeting there.

White said he had introduced the two and believed Andrews had a romantic interest in Ogden. Despite misgivings, he said he agreed to the arrangement because it was Andrews making the request. As the owner of a newspaper that caters to the black community and for generations has helped shape its leadership, Andrews was a hard man to tell no, White testified.

Andrews denied the claim, saying White was throwing him under the bus.

"That's where the divide comes in," Reddick said. "Right now, there are divisions in the community where people are hurt."

The jury awarded Ogden $75,000, and attorney fees are pushing the cost of the case to nearly $500,000.

Still, finding community leaders — particularly black community leaders — who will talk openly about the case is difficult. Most of those contacted for this article either declined comment, offered the most general of observations or didn't return calls.

White has been withholding comment until he decides how to proceed. Andrews has not returned calls.

Into the void has stepped a small group of White supporters known for speaking out during community disputes with real or perceived racial overtones.

They include Robinson, a consulting engineer who has long sought greater access to government contracts for minority-owned companies.

"This case is not going to have the same impact as it does to your white readership," Robinson said. "Black people think differently. We believe in going to church on Sundays, and we believe in forgiveness."

There is also Michelle Patty, who runs a lawyer referral service. Patty, who attended the trial, questions the makeup of the eight-person jury of seven whites and one Hispanic. She also questions some of the judge's rulings that she said helped Ogden.

"I'm out in the community quite a bit," Patty said. "What I'm hearing is people are more outraged by the makeup of the jury."

Bob Buckhorn, a white former Tampa City Council member who has enjoyed strong support in Tampa's historically black neighborhoods, said the justice system worked. He called the verdict devastating to White's political future.

"In this case, all the wounds were self-inflicted," Buckhorn said. "It is following in a pattern of self-inflicted indiscretions by Kevin where there is nobody to blame but himself. To pass blame on the media, the jury and the justice system is doing a disservice to the intelligence of the people in that district."

Plenty of survivors

Hillsborough County's history is salted with political figures who have weathered questions about their conduct or integrity and thrived later.

White's predecessor, Tom Scott, now a Tampa City Council member, survived scrutiny early in his career about whether he improperly tried to help a businessman win a contract with Tampa General Hospital. He was forced to admit that the church where he is pastor received a $15,000 donation from the man.

Jim Norman, the longest-serving county commissioner, was tracked down at a Las Vegas casino with the same businessman while telling the public he was out of town dealing with "family matters." He's now running for the state Senate.

White is his own best local example on the potential for political redemption. He got elected to the City Council despite questions about his conduct as a Tampa police officer.

He left that seat early to run for the County Commission in 2006, winning despite revelations he bought suits with campaign money but listed the costs as expenses paid to a fictitious consulting business. He admitted the deception and paid a fine, but not until after the election.

Now he has two major stains on his record. And he is facing a challenge from former state Sen. Les Miller.

Miller has refused to discuss White's sexual discrimination case beyond saying he feels sorry for the families involved.

Despite the negative attention on his opponent, Miller has raised just over $16,000, one-fourth of the amount White brought in. In fact, Miller has faced questions about why is challenging a fellow black politician rather than seeking another office.

Curtis Stokes, head of the Hills­borough County branch of the NAACP, said White has done a good job in the things that matter. White, he added, serves his constituents well but has stumbled in largely peripheral matters.

Stokes said he doesn't expect Miller or anyone else to knock White off. If anything, he said it's time for the old guard of black politicians to help the next generation.

"Kevin could use role models and mentors, but they want to run against him," Stokes said. "We have to develop a younger cast of candidates and look at Kevin not in terms of what he did wrong, but how can he do better in the future."

Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.

Verdict against Hillsborough commissioner resonating in different ways 08/29/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 29, 2009 9:42pm]
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