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Vocal Commissioner Brian Blair faces intense competition

Hillsborough County Commissioner Brian Blair, 51, and his son, Brett, campaign Saturday morning in Riverview. The Republican incumbent has attracted four opponents.

GEN YAMAGUCHI | Times

Hillsborough County Commissioner Brian Blair, 51, and his son, Brett, campaign Saturday morning in Riverview. The Republican incumbent has attracted four opponents.

TAMPA — Hillsborough County Commissioner Brian Blair has a knack for getting people's attention.

Just months on the job, he told County Administrator Pat Bean at a public meeting that he would vote to fire her if he could.

During his first term, Blair blasted county workers for fouling the private lake behind his house, then pressured the county to pay for a fix. And he pushed to eliminate county wetlands protection, which drew hecklers by the score but resulted in a scaled-down office.

"I've got my own style and my own way of getting the most out of people," Blair said recently. "People know I'm going to challenge them."

Now Blair is facing the challenge. His "style" has landed him the most opposition of any Hills­borough incumbent seeking a return to local office this election season.

Blair, 51, has four opponents, three Democrats and a Republican.

Two fellow commission Republicans seeking new terms have garnered one challenger apiece, not including write-ins, despite voting mostly with him on hot issues. And other sitting pols have already won re-election without opposition. Such is the intimidating power of incumbency.

While three of Blair's challengers are unsuccessful past commission candidates, they have targeted his seat as their best shot at redemption.

"You pick the weakest link," said Democratic political consultant Ana Cruz, who is backing the one challenger who hasn't run before, financial planner Kevin Beckner.

Blair has been at the center of several of the board's most contentious debates. When there's no action there, he finds it elsewhere, carrying the mantel of seeming mentor, former commissioner and now state Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico.

He has appeared on a national news show to rip the school district for eliminating holidays on Good Friday and the day after Easter. And he has sought to ban student-organized protests against bullying gays.

Supporters say the interest of rivals in Blair's seat stems from his vocal advocacy, particularly for lowering taxes and streamlining government.

"Commissioner Blair has always been passionate and outspoken on issues he cares about," said Jennifer Doerfel, director of governmental affairs for the Tampa Bay Builders Association, which endorsed him early. "Anytime you do that, you will attract people with opposing opinions."

Critics can be blunt in their assessment of Blair's commission performance so far.

"There's a word for him: It's 'twit,' " said strip club owner Joe Redner, another of Blair's Democratic opponents. "I looked it up. It means silly and foolish."

Blair, who owned gyms following a wrestling career, won election to the commission in 2004 promising to squeeze nickels into dimes and to be "a uniter, not a divider." He's had more success at the former than the latter.

Since joining the board, Blair has regularly sought to cut county spending. He successfully championed the largest property tax rate cut in county history two years ago, after years of runups in spending.

"I'm a small government, less spending, less taxes, more freedom sort of Republican," said activist Greg Truax, who has contributed to the Blair campaign. "Brian … has worked to try to hold the growth of taxes down."

Six months after taking office, Blair called for Bean's head over a proposal to hike stormwater fees, saying the county should live within its means. He says now he was simply sending her a message, and fee hike proposals have been few since.

Blair's main focus has been what he sees as government inefficiency, and he has been particularly critical of offices that regulate growth. They operate too slowly and arbitrarily he said, driving up the costs of homes and slowing development that puts people in trades to work.

Building interests have showered his campaign with financial contributions as a result.

His seminal fight came last year as he was serving as chairman of the Environmental Protection Commission. He joined three other board members who voted to eliminate the part of the agency that reviews construction proposals near wetlands.

Blair argued that the office duplicates the work of state and regional agencies. Program supporters said it provides more stringent protections, particular for small wetlands.

Environmental supporters thronged the County Center in protest, and commissioners ultimately voted to streamline the office instead. Blair says that's what he wanted all along, and that opponents were ginned up by radical groups.

"I love the environment and believe it's our most precious resource," Blair said. "Extremism in the defense of the environment or any other government service is not a virtue."

He later came under fire for intervening on behalf of a mulching firm facing an EPC penalty that he considered unfair, likening the agency to the "gestapo." The Florida Commission on Ethics found no probable cause to conclude that he influenced the outcome of the case.

The leader of one of the groups Blair labeled as extremist said he is the last one who should be applying labels.

"It's clear he's pretty connected with the special interests," said Terry Flott, who chairs the United Citizens' Action Group. "The fact that there are so many candidates running against him says we're not extremists and we have our finger on the pulse better than he does."

The EPC debate occurred shortly after revelations that Blair had pushed to clean up a chain of lakes that included a private one his family shares with 25 other property owners. He has claimed that county drainage work had polluted the lake.

The St. Petersburg Times reported that Blair helped win nearly $1-million for the work, though the amount was later cut. The story cited studies, one by the EPC, that found the county was not responsible for long-term degradation of the lake.

Blair discounted the studies and said he went to bat for his neighbors.

Beckner, one of his Democratic opponents, cites the lakes story in a campaign brochure, claiming Blair puts himself ahead of community needs.

Each of his Democratic opponents voices a desire for better growth planning and management, with activist Dee Layne declining to critique Blair's performance other than to say change is needed.

Republican Don Kruse is largely complimentary of Blair, but also calls for better planning.

Beckner says he too supports tax restraint, but Blair pushes it at the expense of preparing for transportation, affordable housing and other needs that come with growth. "We need to scrutinize every single dollar," Beckner said. "But I also would not be penny wise and pound foolish."

Blair said he has fought to unburden working families from rising taxes and unreasonable bureaucracy, and every penny counts. He acknowledged he hasn't always been perfect.

"The promises that I made, I kept," he said.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Vocal Commissioner Brian Blair faces intense competition 08/09/08 [Last modified: Friday, August 15, 2008 12:54pm]
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