TAMPA — Voters in Hillsborough County will have a host of local political decisions to make come November beyond selecting the nation's president.
But, as it stands now, they will have few meaningful choices.
With nine months to go before the November elections, few political races in Hillsborough County have more than one viable candidate, despite the spirited national debate over the country's governance.
"It is a concern if there is not competition, because that's what keeps the whole system healthy," said Mickey Castor, president of the Hillsborough County League of Women Voters. "Without competition, there's no incentive for elected officials to listen."
Blame redistricting for creating uncertainty over political boundaries for the state Legislature, and for further tilting the edge in favor of Republicans eyeing the Hillsborough County Commission. Blame an economy that makes raising money needed to build name recognition a greater challenge.
Plus, it's early yet, say some political observers. Things may yet pick up after Florida's Republican presidential primary election Tuesday.
"Once that happens, I think people begin concentrating on local races," said east county Republican activist Sam Rashid.
Still, the presidential campaign adds to the urgency for local political hopefuls to start growing grass roots support now or risk getting drowned by national super political action committee ads later.
With few exceptions, that isn't happening. Consider:
• The Hillsborough County Commission has five of its seven seats up for election, each with incumbents seeking new terms. But only one, Democrat Kevin Beckner, has meaningful opposition.
• Though they are jobs that offer six-figure salaries, only one of the races for the county's constitutional offices — from the sheriff to the tax collector — has significant competition. The lone exception is the supervisor of elections, from which Earl Lennard is retiring. His deputy, Democrat Craig Latimer, and state Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, are vying to succeed him.
• Almost no state legislators have reason to sweat. Republican Sen. Jim Norman and Democrat Rep. Betty Reed each recently picked up intra-party challengers, though it's unclear if either will mount a serious bid. Meanwhile, the Plant City-centered Senate seat Glorioso is vacating has attracted just one candidate, Republican Dan Raulerson, that city's mayor.
Political observers say redistricting is slowing activity on the legislative level. The Legislature has yet to settle on new boundaries following the 2010 Census and, although it may in coming weeks, court challenges could follow.
Some of those same observers, at least Democrats, say redistricting is causing inertia in other potential races, including County Commission.
Commissioners approved new boundaries for the four seats that represent portions of the county last year. Two of the areas, District 2 (primarily northern Hillsborough) and District 4 (eastern Hillsborough) are already tilted heavily in favor of Republicans.
During redistricting, the commission's Republican majority shaved parts of those districts to bolster the GOP's edge in District 1, which takes in South and West Tampa and part of southern Hillsborough. District 3, which includes central and east Tampa, remains solidly Democratic.
Though each has been in office for just two years, District 1 Commissioner Sandra Murman, and District 2 Commissioner Victor Crist, both Republicans, have no opposition so far. District 3 Commissioner and Democrat Les Miller is facing Republican opponent Willie Lee Lawson. District 4 Commissioner Al Higginbotham, is unopposed.
"This is a byproduct of gerrymandering," said Democratic political consultant Mitch Kates.
That said, Hillsborough Democratic Party Chairman Chris Mitchell said he expects more candidates to step forward in coming weeks. He said the local party, which has undergone several leadership changes in recent years, is working to bolster its organization and build a pool of potential candidates for future years.
His focus this year is ensuring that there are candidates from his party in races where Democrats have at least a fighting shot.
"We're really focused on viability," Mitchell said. "Making sure we're smart in how we allocate our resources."
His Republican counterpart, Art Wood, said he is similarly looking to stock his party's bench. But for the most part, his party is already represented in most local contests.
Beckner, for instance, is facing two active challengers in Steve Cona and Margaret Iuculano, in the lone countywide County Commission race.
Sharon Calvert, co-founder of the Tampa Tea Party, said she had expected to see more contests like Beckner's as Republicans battle over the party's direction. Cona is enjoying support from much of that party's establishment while Iuculano is capturing its tea party uprising.
Calvert, of Lutz, is whispered as a prospective challenger to Crist for the County Commission, though she's not saying if she will pursue his seat or another.
"I wish we would have them lining up out the door," she said of like-minded, would-be candidates. "I think we're still looking at races and still looking at people who may be interested in running."
Similarly, Democratic activist Mark Nash, is widely viewed as a prospective challenger to Higginbotham for the County Commission. Like Calvert, he is not showing his hand.
He said that, from his observation, the public is less engaged in civic life due to the sagging economy. People are just trying to get by and they're frustrated with government and the political discourse, he said.
"I wish I had better answers," he said. "More people in the conversation would give the public better choices."
Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.