Tuesday, January 23, 2018

March column: Winner Viera credits New Tampa vote in narrow council win

The Dec. 6 City Council District 7 runoff was roiled late in the campaign when candidate Jim Davison said he wouldn't rule out using the threat of secession from the city to draw attention to the unmet needs of New Tampa.

As result, Mayor Bob Buckhorn dropped his previously neutral public stance to endorse Davison's opponent, Luis Viera, who won by a razor-thin margin.

But how did the voters of New Tampa feel?

In the election, Davison won in the nine precincts that make up New Tampa by 1,817-1,684, or 52-48 percent, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis.

Nonetheless, Viera believes the controversy helped him.

Buckhorn's involvement and the discussion on secession "got people's attention" and elevated turnout, he said. "My new Tampa neighbors were overwhelmingly opposed to that idea."

Both candidates live in New Tampa, but Viera said he thinks Davison won the area because he's lived there longer, 23 years to his own 11.

"If I was clobbered 2-1, I'd think something different," he said.

Davison said he thinks the secession issue had little if any effect, attributing Viera's win to "the Democratic turnout machine."

"I never said I was for secession, and I don't think people are really for it, this is not the first time it has been talked about," he said.

In the past, he said, the issue has died down when former city officials including Mayor Dick Greco paid attention to New Tampa's needs.

New Tampa apparently was interested in the race. Although in the past its voter turnout has lagged in city elections, in this one it was slightly higher, 10.1 percent.

Viera said he plans to run for re-election, and Davison said he or another New Tampa candidate may choose to challenge him again, depending on his performance in office.

Controversial votes knock out Clendenin

The hopes of Tampa's Alan Clendenin to run for state Democratic Party chairman apparently ended in a raucous Hillsborough Democratic Party meeting this week in which Clendenin was voted out of the local party office that qualifies him to run for state chair.

The election sparked controversy and back-and-forth shouting during the meeting because Democratic members of the Tampa City Council, the county school board and Mayor Bob Buckhorn weren't allowed to vote.

Party Chairwoman Ione Townsend ruled that under party bylaws, holders of non-partisan offices are not "automatic members" of the local executive committee, and therefore not entitled to vote in executive committee elections.

Clendenin's backers say the non-partisan officials have voted in past elections and would have voted for Clendenin. They said the move to eliminate them was engineered by his opponents, pointing to a Facebook posting by an opponent of Clendenin — unsuccessful school board candidate Cathy James — saying the move was made to thwart Clendenin.

But Clendenin opponents say he wouldn't have won anyway, and dispute that they engineered anything.

"That's ridiculous," said Susan Smith of Tampa, chairman of the state Democratic Party's Progressive caucus, referring to accusations that she and Sally Phillips of the state party's LGBTA caucus inspired the move.

Smith acknowledged she supported Clendenin's opponent for the local party office, Russ Patterson, saying the state party needs new leadership.

The events angered some of the disenfranchised local officials.

"The role of parties is to try to enlarge the tent, not look for arbitrary ways to cut people out," said City Council member Harry Cohen, who favored Clendenin.

School board member April Griffin wouldn't reveal whom she intended to vote for, but said, "I'm part of a party that's supposed to be fighting against voter suppression."

Griffin said Townsend "shopped around for interpretations that suited her" in making her ruling on the bylaws.

Patterson unseated Clendenin as Hillsborough County delegate to the state party executive committee. A candidate for state chairman must be member of that state committee.

Clendenin said all six council members, three school board members and the mayor were either present or sent proxy votes, but weren't allowed to vote.

"I was saddened to see a small group of activists turn against our elected officials," he said.

Townsend said the accusation that she was involved in a plan to thwart Clendenin was "fantastical … a conspiracy theory."

She said her ruling came from advice by members of the state party's rules committee, and was sustained in a floor vote during the meeting. She said she stayed neutral in the race, but acknowledged her husband backed Patterson.

"We have some fences to mend and bridges to build and I'll do my best to do that," Townsend said.

Clendenin has been a staunch Hillary Clinton supporter, and his backers suggested he was opposed by those who supported Bernie Sanders.

The current state party chairwoman, Allison Tant, has said she won't run for re-election. Clendenin lost narrowly to Tant in 2013. This year, half a dozen Democrats may seek the post.

Seidel joins Citizens Advisory Committee

Republican Eric Seidel, a lawyer and former television broadcaster on consumer issues, still wants to stay involved in local government after losing his race to unseat Democratic Clerk of Court Pat Frank.

Republican County Commissioner Al Higginbotham has appointed Seidel to the Citizens Advisory Committee, a 14-member volunteer body that advises the commissioners on issues and provides citizen input. Its top-priority current job: recommending funding sources for transportation improvements.

Seidel lost to Frank 53-47 percent after running a campaign widely viewed as civil and issue-oriented.

Andrew Warren hires Frazier, Weisman

Newly elected Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren has made his first two major hires — Tampa lawyer Gary Weisman for chief of staff and Brandon lawyer Rena Frazier, an unsuccessful candidate for the District 59 state House seat, as chief of policy and communications.

Warren, a Democrat and former federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C. and Tampa, unseated Republican State Attorney Mark Ober in the Nov. 8 election.

Warren said Weisman's job will be solely administrative, and that he replaces Dick Donahoe, a non-lawyer who held a similar position under Ober for years and is now retiring.

Weisman, 42, is an insurance litigator who has practiced in Tampa for 15 years and been a leader in the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, Warren said.

Frazier, viewed by many local Democrats as a potential rising star, lost to Republican state Rep. Ross Spano, R-Riverview, in the Nov. 8 election. She's a Hillsborough County native who has practiced commercial and real estate litigation in Tampa for 12 years. She will focus on community outreach and advise Warren on policy, he said.

Warren said neither job will involve prosecutorial duties, and that he expects to make few changes in the prosecution team.

However, the legal community is closely watching one key decision Warren will make concerning that team — replacing Ober's chief assistant, Mike Sinacore, who has resigned to work for the U.S. Attorney's office.

"It's a critical position in any state attorney's office, and Mike Sinacore was highly regarded by everyone in the legal system," said prominent criminal lawyer John Fitzgibbons.

Warren said this week he's not ready to announce a replacement.

Contact William March at [email protected]

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