TAMPA — After two weeks of early voting, Democrats in central Tampa and parts of eastern Hillsborough County will participate Tuesday in what is essentially a referendum on Kevin White.
White is seeking a second term as the District 3 Hillsborough County Commissioner. He is coming off a federal civil jury's ruling late last year that he sexually harassed a former aide. And he is still reeling from the fallout of the roughly $450,000 legal bill taxpayers had to foot to defend him.
He is facing two challengers with resumes prominently featuring public service: former state legislator Les Miller; and Valerie Goddard, chairwoman of the Children's Board of Hillsborough County, who for years ran a popular east Tampa day care.
White, who like his opponents is black, has appealed to his heavily African-American constituency by saying he has largely been maligned by the mainstream press. While owning up to some of his foibles, he said he has nevertheless managed to deliver for his district.
Tuesday will reveal if Democratic voters in his district feel the same way.
"Have there been missteps in personal issues during my tenure? Yes there have," White said. "As far as being a representative for my district, I think I have done my job. I've served my constituents well."
Through months of campaigning, White's sexual harassment trial last August has been the elephant in the room. His challengers have alluded to allegations that White lured a newly hired 22-year-old aide to Atlanta where he attempted to share a bed with her, but only in the most vague of terms.
Goddard, 45, has called the episode a distraction from the important concerns of the district, which includes many of the county's poorest neighborhoods.
"Folks are angry and frustrated thinking that the time spent on these issues has taken time from what's really important," Goddard said. "They want people who represent them that can focus their attention on the issues that matter to them."
As a member of the Children's Board, Goddard helps oversee programs that assist some of the county's poorest children and their families with things like day care and remedial education. Before that, she spent 13 years as executive director with Helping Hand Day Nursery, where many of the area's poor and middle class African-American families sent their children before integration.
Goddard's grandmother, Altamese Brodie, worked for and ultimately ran the day care for nearly 55 years. Goddard views her grandmother as a model.
She said she wants to bring a collaborative spirit to issues not only involving child care, but transportation, public safety and generally helping solve residents' problems.
"I have never run for office or served in an elected capacity, so I bring to the table a fresh, new perspective," she said. "I have hands-on and practical experience on programs that neither of my opponents can say they have done."
Miller, 59, similarly has barely touched White's troubles throughout the campaign so far, obliquely saying he wants to help restore respect in the office and better serve constituents.
"I will make sure that you will never, ever be embarrassed by me," he told roughly 120 people who showed up for a Temple Terrace forum sponsored by the NAACP and other black-oriented civic groups.
He changed tunes late this week with a pair of fliers explicitly highlighting White's low-lights: the sexual harassment verdict, the legal bill and an admission that he masked the purchase of designer suits with campaign funds in an early political contests.
"Enough is enough," the mailers read. "Enough corruption! Enough sexual harassment! Enough lies!"
Until now, Miller has steadfastly clung to a recitation of his record of public service. He has served in the military and as a state legislator for 14 years, first in the House and then in the Senate, rising to party leadership posts in both.
White, 45, is a former police officer who served on the Tampa City Council before jumping to the County Commission. He has made ensuring that minorities get equal service and contracts from county government a focus.
He has tussled with Miller in the past, accusing him of failing in a former job at Tampa General Hospital, where he was in charge of helping give out work to minority contractors. White returned to that theme in newspaper ads in recent weeks and also blasted Miller for abandoning the Tampa-Hillsborough Urban League during a financial crisis.
That is arguably a theme in White's campaign: That he won't abandon his district, even while facing personal troubles. Despite his challenges, he argues he has managed to serve his constituents well. He helped secure money for a sports complex in Progress Village and drainage fixes in Palm River, where flooding has been a long-time problem.
He has pushed for safety improvements on 22nd Street and was quickly on the scene when a homeless tent city was proposed in east Hillsborough, though critics will say he is quick to insert himself when television cameras are present.
During a forum last week, he and his challengers were asked if White has been unfairly attacked in the news media. When it was White's turn, he said he indeed believes he has been "unduly and unfairly attacked at times."
He noted recent news accounts of a nearly $500,000 Arkansas house that has turned up in name of fellow commissioner Jim Norman's wife, but not on his financial disclosure report. He imagined aloud being in Norman's shoes.
"I guarantee you I would have gotten 100 times the ink that my fellow commissioner got," White said.
"Uh-huh," said a woman up front as the crowd of largely African-American residents in Temple Terrace broke out in applause and whistles.
The outcome of Tuesday's primary will most certainly determine who serves District 3 going forward as only a write-in candidate remains for the general election.
The presence of a write-in candidate means the primary is closed to Republican voters.
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or email@example.com.