Sunday, December 17, 2017
Politics

Rays' stadium issue pushes Hillsborough commissioner into limelight

TAMPA — Ken Hagan spent his first years on the Hillsborough County Commission as a man of mystery, so seldom did he speak. He toed the conservative Republican line, won approval for the occasional fire station or park in his district, but generally kept his mouth shut.

He's a wallflower no more.

These days he's trying to lure Bass Pro Shops to Hillsborough with tax dollars. He's seeking stiffer penalties for people who harm pups and an end to the killing of discarded pets at the county's animal shelter.

But Hagan's most visible role has been his flirtation with the Tampa Bay Rays. Almost single-handledly, he has ensured that finding a new home for the team stays front and center.

For months, he courted the team's owner and management for a meeting with his board to talk about their hopes for a new stadium. Now he's pressing for meetings of the region's elected officials and business leaders to keep the discussion rolling.

Hagan says his interest is simple: The team brings money and attention that Tampa Bay can't afford to lose.

"Whether you like the Rays or not, whether you like sports or not, when you have an economic engine in the $300 million-a-year range, I believe it's incumbent upon elected officials to do everything we can to ensure that engine remains," Hagan said.

Friends say there's something more: Hagan very much wants his hometown to hold on to the sport he played as a child and once aspired to as an adult.

"I think it has a lot to do with his love of baseball," said Andy Scaglione, who serves with Hagan on the Tampa Sports Authority.

Hagan, 45, grew up on the Little League fields of suburban Hillsborough. He told friends he planned to be a second baseman for the New York Yankees.

As he progressed through rec leagues, he took every opportunity to hone his skills. During his senior year at Chamberlain High School, he had an open period at the end of the day and spent it in the batting cage.

"By the time practice started, he already had 100 cuts," said his coach that year, K.R. Lombardia, of a younger Hagan he still calls Kenny. "He was as good of a high school hitter as I've ever seen."

That year, Hagan finished second among Hillsborough County high school players with a .466 batting average, despite a childhood bottle-rocket accident that left him partially blind in one eye. Ahead of him: Tino Martinez, future first baseman for the New York Yankees and Rays. Behind him: Gary Sheffield and Luis Gonzalez, future major leaguers.

Lombardia said Hagan, who played catcher before moving to first base, was a little slow and not as strong in the field as he was in the batter's box. He got scholarship offers to out-of-state schools, but opted instead to play and study at Hillsborough Community College.

"I was a mama's boy and wasn't going to leave Florida," Hagan said.

He would transfer to the University of Florida as a junior, and lettered as a walk-on first baseman who occasionally started. But for a variety of reasons, including a hurt arm and falling grades, he did not stick with the sport, graduating with a degree in finance. He went on to get a master's in business administration from the University of Tampa.

When the Rays started playing in St. Petersburg in 1998, Hagan was working in business development. He bought season tickets for the first four seasons, giving them up when he ran for the County Commission in 2002.

Hagan was a political unknown when he won the commission seat that year representing northern Hillsborough. He did it despite showing up for few debates or forums, instead out-hustling his opponents in door-to-door campaigning.

Public affairs consultant Beth Leytham, a friend and sounding board to Hagan, says she remembers having a meeting with him some time after he was elected. Hagan looked down much of the time, and Leytham said she had to do the talking to keep the conversation going.

In his first few years on the board, he rarely spoke during commission meetings. Quietly, he pushed for items that directly benefited his district, from library expansions to new fire stations and parks programs.

"Ken is an introvert, which many people don't realize, and doesn't wear his emotions on his sleeve," Leytham said. "But . . . he's just as passionate and focused on his issues as those who are more effusive."

His campaigning resembled the grass roots style of his predecessor, Jim Norman. And Hagan also shared Norman's interest in sports and recreational programs for children, ultimately succeeding Norman as a countywide commissioner in 2010 and taking his spot on the Tampa Sports Authority.

"I think he's taken up that mantle after Jim Norman," said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, who was a year ahead of Hagan at Chamberlain High and also served with him on the County Commission.

Hagan remains a man of few words. And it can be hard to decipher his thinking on some issues.

He led the push for creation of a transportation task force, the group that recommended holding a referendum in 2010 on whether to increase the sales tax by a penny to pay for new roads, transit and a commuter light rail system. Hagan supported the referendum, but his signature line had him predicting the referendum would fail. Indeed, it failed.

Hagan has said he is not proposing any public financing if the Rays' stadium ends up in Hillsborough County.

Just last week, he was alone in not giving an explanation for why he joined the majority in rejecting a proposed domestic partner registry, something sought by gay rights advocates. It would have ensured, among other things, that unmarried couples, gay or straight, could visit a loved one and make treatment decisions for a hospitalized partner.

Fellow Republican Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who pushed both proposals, said he remembers the first time Hagan ran for office. He said Hagan knew precisely how many votes he would need to win and had a plan to go get them.

"When I think of Ken, I think numbers. He can look at things dispassionately, in a clinical manner," Sharpe said. "He doesn't deviate from the plan. He doesn't put himself at odds with lots of people."

But when it comes to baseball and the Rays, Hagan has let his passion show.

He has called the threat of lawsuits from St. Petersburg officials "spurious" and accused that city's mayor, Bill Foster, of keeping his head in the sand. While Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has said he doesn't want to be the boyfriend in a Rays-St. Petersburg divorce, Hagan has not been so chaste.

"There's no question that I've always loved baseball," Hagan said. "It transcends politics. It transcends the problems of the day. It brings families, neighborhoods and communities together."

Except right now, perhaps. But Hagan's hoping to change that.

Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.

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