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Phyllis Busansky's legacy of courage deserved to live on

Talk about your courage — moral, political or otherwise.

At the age of 71, a politician known in these parts mostly just as Phyllis plucked an important job from the clutches of someone who was doing it badly.

Phyllis Busansky, former county commissioner, champion of health care for the poor, true believer, big voice, big presence, beat Buddy Johnson in November to become Hillsborough's elections supervisor.

Heck, she'd already battled lung cancer. Ousting Johnson had to be a cinch when you run on a platform of reform and restoring citizen confidence — especially when your own idealistic fix-this-mess history backs you up.

And it sure says something to the world when one of your first official acts is to tear down a front office wall that your predecessor put up to shut the public out.

Her campaign slogan was phyllis!, just phyllis! The exclamation point had it about right, though there was nothing lower-case about Phyllis Busansky.

"Kid," she called you, and "fabulous!" she said, and often.

Chutzpah? Phyllis first ran for County Commission 21 years ago against a big name from the Tampa City Council, an astonishing thing to do at the time. Tom Vann, who had big billboards and a bigger war chest, was so confident he printed up refrigerator magnets urging people to vote for him in November when he hadn't even beaten her in the primary yet.

She ran a good-guy grass roots campaign, limited donations to $100 and handed him his hat.

After the sad news of her sudden and unexpected death spread across town Tuesday — she had only just started again, after all — talk in offices and over lunches inevitably turned to her replacement.

Who will our Republican governor, with his own aspirations, pick in the place of a Democrat just put in office by the voters? And I suddenly felt embarrassed. Already we were talking politics when the news about Phyllis still didn't seem possible.

But then, wasn't that exactly what you could see her doing — thinking ahead to protecting a legacy of openness and competence, given the realities of party politics and political ambitions?

Which brings us to an irony of timing I think maybe Phyllis, a woman whose laugh you could hear across any crowded campaign event, might appreciate.

It had to do with the late Ralph Hughes, a powerful conservative Republican businessman known for giving big bucks to candidates who supported his views.

Last year, five county commissioners who oh-by-the-way took campaign money from him voted to name their most prestigious prize, the Moral Courage Award, for Hughes.

Problem? This award is supposed to go to someone who stands up to government to make this a better place to live. To name it for a millionaire who opposed taxes and regulation and gave out campaign money was to many people a slap in the face. One recipient gave her award back.

So on the same day we learned the sad news about Phyllis Busansky came headlines that told us the IRS says Hughes owed $69.3 million in unpaid taxes.

Time for another renaming? If they called it the Phyllis Award, people around here would know who you meant, and why.

Phyllis Busansky's legacy of courage deserved to live on 06/23/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 23, 2009 8:52pm]
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