Saturday, December 16, 2017
Politics

Race for Hillsborough property appraiser moves from scandal to qualifications

TAMPA — The race for Hillsborough County property appraiser was the most sensational among local political contests during the primary season.

Incumbent Republican Rob Turner had just admitted to sending pornographic emails to his human resources director, a woman he acknowledged he once dated while she worked for him. State Sen. Ronda Storms jumped in to challenge Turner at the last minute, trouncing him.

With Turner out of the picture, the race to succeed him looks like a typical campaign for a constitutional office — a contest over resumes and slogans about qualifications. It features two candidates with political experience in Storms and former state Rep. Bob Henriquez, a Democrat.

Two other candidates running without party affiliation, James DeMio and Rob Townsend, are hoping to pull an upset.

At stake is who will oversee an office that assesses the values of all Hillsborough County properties for the purpose of determining their tax bills, with an $11 million budget and 130 employees.

Storms and Henriquez couldn't be more different.

Storms, 47, is a socially conservative firebrand known for going to bat for constituents, for calling out what she perceives as injustice and for inflaming passions. Well-known to even casual political observers, she elicits strong feelings among supporters and detractors.

She has changed her message little since the primary ended.

"I'm competent and I'm a hard worker," Storms said. "I do my work. I show up to the office, and I'm faithful to my constituents."

She has law and English education degrees but has mostly worked in politics after teaching high school, first as a Hillsborough County commissioner before serving in the state Senate for the past six years.

Henriquez, 48, is less well-known, having left the state House in 2006 due to term limits. Supporters say he had a reputation for working across partisan lines in a congenial manner.

He touts most heavily his three years overseeing the regional offices of the Department of Children and Families ending last year, with a larger staff and budget than the property appraiser.

"To me, voters are making a hiring decision for who should be the chief executive officer for this office," Henriquez says frequently. "Sen. Storms is a capable person, but better suited for the legislative arena."

Henriquez has worked as a planner for Hillsborough County government, in different capacities with engineering firms and as a government affairs coordinator for what is now the Tampa Bay Builders Association. He may be best known as head football coach at Tampa Catholic High School.

He and Storms have different views on how well the property appraiser's office functions.

Storms characterizes it as an office in need of fixing, damaged by Turner and prone to treating property assessments as though he is paid by "commission."

"I'm in the race to clean up the office, to straighten up the office," Storms said. "So that voters will have someone who is faithful to them and will serve them dependably."

She says she will improve hiring and supervising standards and make the office more approachable to people who have questions about their assessments and want to challenge them. She said she will strictly follow standards set by the state, but where there is room for interpretation will err on the side of the taxpayer.

"If the ball hits the line, you call the ball in favor of the taxpayer," Storms said.

Henriquez says that, despite the porn scandal, the office works reasonably well to fairly assess property. He characterizes the need for change more in terms of tweaks than an overhaul.

He agrees the office should make it easier for people to raise questions about their assessments, employing a similar "tie goes to the runner" metaphor.

An early priority would be improving the agency's website to make it easier for residents to interact with the office.

"I think, on balance, the office has done a fairly good job," he said.

While Henriquez has more office experience, his time as circuit administrator overseeing the Pasco and Pinellas offices of DCF was somewhat of a mixed bag, at least according to his evaluations. Supervisor Nick Cox, now statewide prosecutor for Florida, credited him with being active in the community but said he was not visible enough in the office.

In numerical scores, Henriquez earned mostly 3's on a 1-to-5 scale, which technically meant he met expectations but in government grading tends to mean he needed to show improvement.

Cox, who has contributed to both Henriquez's and Storms' campaigns, said he never had questions about Henriquez's work ethic and he had encouraged his community outreach. It was more a question of balance, he said.

"I was worried that perception could become reality in people's minds," he said.

In a mailer, Henriquez touts his varied experience. He contrasted it with Storms, whom he described as a "bully and self-promoter."

Particularly during her time as a county commissioner, Storms had a knack for attracting headlines that rallied supporters and angered opponents. She led the effort to ban gay pride displays on county property, for instance.

In a newspaper submission this week, Democratic County Commissioner and former state legislator Les Miller resurrected statements Storms made in 2000 as historically black Florida A & M University considered opening a law school in Hillsborough.

"We can get them through law school, but we can't get them to pass the bar," she was quoted as saying at the time.

Storms has said her social views will have no bearing on the office, other than allowing voters to understand that she stands in the face of opposition.

"I've been a person who has established enormous negative blowback for stating what I believe in," Storms said. "I still have those views, but they're not views that will come into contact with this office."

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