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March column: Higginbotham departure stirs pot of potential successors

Al Higginbotham's announcement this week that he won't seek re-election to his countywide District 7 Hillsborough County Commission seat set off a flurry of chatter among local politicos about who might run for what in next year's elections.

But the chatter expanded because starting in 2018, Hillsborough County will see three years of elections that could sharply alter the cast of political characters in the county.

HANGING IT UP: Higginbotham won't seek re-election

In 2018, two countywide commission seats and one district seat will be left open by term-limited or resigning commissioners. One incumbent will be running for re-election.

Then will come the 2019 Tampa city election, which will choose a new mayor along with the council members. And in the 2020 election, at least two constitutional offices will be vacant — Tax Collector Doug Belden and Clerk of Court Pat Frank have both said they're in their last terms.

Conversations with local insiders indicate that a score or so of term-limited current political officeholders, former officeholders and unsuccessful former candidates all are considering how they might fit into the puzzle.

"There's certainly been a lot of talk," since the news about Higginbotham broke, said one of those insiders, Adam Bantner, Brandon lawyer Tampa Tiger Bay Club President. It's something of an understatement.

Like lots of other people, Bantner is the subject of speculation about a county commissioner's race — and doesn't rule it out.

Following is a synopsis of some of the talk and some of the people being talked about.

Dems hope to pick up commission seat

In 2018, Higginbotham's seat and the countywide District 5 seat held by Commissioner Ken Hagan, plus Commissioner Victor Crist's north Hillsborough District 2 seat, will be vacant — Hagan and Crist both have term limits — while Commissioner Stacy White runs for re-election in his east Hillsborough District 4.

Non-presidential election years aren't normally great for Democrats, but local government affairs consultant Todd Pressman said the climate may be better for them if the popularity of a President Donald Trump doesn't improve. The party in power, Pressman noted, often suffers electoral losses in the first year after a new president takes office.

That has local Democrats including state Rep. Janet Cruz eying the 2018 county races with heightened interest, particularly after Democrat Pat Kemp came within half a point of unseating Higginbotham in 2014 before winning the vacant, countywide District 6 seat last year.

Democrats think they could have a shot at both the countywide seats, balancing the board at four Republicans and three Democrats.

Besides Cruz, who's term-limited in her House seat, those who might be interested include former Commissioner Kevin Beckner, unsuccessful 2016 state House candidate David Singer and unsuccessful county commission candidate Brian Willis.

Unsuccessful House candidate Rena Frazier, viewed by many in the party as a potential rising star, said this week she's committed to remaining in her job with new State Attorney Andrew Warren and won't seek office in 2018.

Swarm of Republicans likely to vie for seat

Crist has already announced he'll run for a countywide seat, and Commissioner Sandy Murman, who faces a 2020 term limit in her District 1 seat, isn't ruling out going for one of the countywide seats open next year to restart her term-limit clock.

Commissioner Ken Hagan, who couldn't be reached for comment last week, remains a question mark. He's interested in the 2019 Tampa mayor's race but could have better chances switching to the District 2 commissioner's seat that Crist will vacate.

That would be Hagan's third bite at the term-limit apple – he served 2002-2010 in a district seat before winning his current countywide seat.

Tea party activist Tim Curtis is already filed for a countywide seat.

At least a half-dozen other GOP names are circulating, and several didn't rule out the possibility, including Keystone businessman and former state House candidate Tom Aderhold and his wife Barbara, a civic activist; Bantner; unsuccessful 2016 candidate Tim Schock; and Tea Party activist Sharon Calvert.

The race could be confusing because the open District 5 and 7 seats are, in effect, identical – any candidate can run for either one.

"The only difference between them is the District 7 office in the county center is bigger," said Crist, "but it also overlooks the dumpsters, so it gets noisy a couple of times a week."

That means candidates including Crist can switch from one district to the other, jockeying to choose their opponents.

One insider noted Tom Lee, who moved to Thonotosassa to remain eligible for his redrawn state Senate district, now lives in Crist's commission district. Last year, Lee considered for months whether to stay in the Senate, run for a county seat or enter a statewide race for chief financial officer. He would have all three options again in 2018 but couldn't be reached for comment last week.

Contact William March at wemarch@gmail.com

March column: Higginbotham departure stirs pot of potential successors 01/13/17 [Last modified: Friday, January 13, 2017 3:55pm]
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