TAMPA — At a time when members of Congress from both parties appear dug in firm, Mark Sharpe says he wants to be a "bridge builder."
Sharpe, 51, a Republican Hillsborough County commissioner, announced his candidacy Monday for the U.S. House seat currently held by Democrat Kathy Castor.
In a brief speech noteworthy for an absence of tea party talking points, Sharpe spoke of working with others to solve the nation's seemingly intractable challenges.
"I believe in bringing people together," said Sharpe, making his announcement before supporters at Buddy Brew Coffee in South Tampa.
Sharpe spoke of a nation in crisis. But he expressed optimism that, with leaders working with one another and listening to citizens who put them in office, the country will emerge strong from the point of peril it faces.
"I, like you, feel a duty and obligation to help deal with this crisis," he said. "When we look weak we are also at our strongest."
His comments at least partly reflect that he is seeking a seat that has tilted decidedly Democratic for years. Democratic voters hold a roughly 2-to-1 edge in the district, which takes in much of Tampa, the south county shoreline and Democrat-rich slivers of south St. Petersburg and Manatee County.
But the makeup of that district could change next year under the process of redrawing congressional boundaries every decade.
In any event, Sharpe may present the strongest challenge yet for Castor, a former county commissioner who has not won a general election by less than 19 points since first running for Congress in 2006.
"It's not the time to focus on political campaigns," Castor said. "I'm going to be focused on creating jobs and growing the economy so our small businesses can hire and thrive."
This will be Sharpe's fourth bid for the District 11 congressional seat, but the first in 15 years. He campaigned in 1992 and 1994 against long-time Democratic Rep. Sam Gibbons, coming within 4 percentage points the second time.
He ran a third time for the open seat left by Gibbons in 1996, but was defeated by Democrat Jim Davis in a hard-fought campaign.
Each time he showed himself to be a feisty campaigner and capable money-raiser.
The former Naval intelligence officer emerged eight years later, after spending time teaching, to win the at-large County Commission seat vacated by Democrat Pat Frank. He re-emerged as a changed politician.
The earlier Sharpe was attempting to join a wave of Republican politicians who swept into Congress under the backdrop of Speaker Newt Gingrich's Contract with America.
He supported dismantling the welfare system and privatizing Social Security, and pummeled Davis in particular for votes he cast as a legislator to raise taxes.
Sharpe the commissioner has continued to press for making government smaller. He led the effort to fire County Administrator Pat Bean for what as he saw as her failure to adapt to the challenges of falling tax receipts.
But he also has made fans of some environmentalists who saw him as an advocate for growth management. He angered many Republicans after he emerged as an unlikely pitchman for raising the county's sales tax to pay for light rail, roads and buses, which voters soundly rejected last year.
"I would rather he be in Congress as one of 435 than here on the County Commission as one of seven, because he can do significantly more damage here than he can up there," said east county conservative Sam Rashid, who backed an unsuccessful primary challenger of Sharpe's last year but said he has pledged $1,000 to Sharpe's new campaign.
Chris Ingram, a conservative Republican political consultant and supporter of Sharpe's who was at Monday's announcement, said Sharpe's candidacy stands a chance because of his willingness not to be an ideologue.
"It's going to take a mainstream conservative to appeal to independents and right-leaning Democrats," Ingram said. "I think that's Mark Sharpe's appeal."
Sharpe offered no specific policy stands Monday. He said he thinks additional spending cuts are needed with no program left off limits. But he refused to rule out looking for new revenue, including closing tax loopholes.
He was asked at one point whether he would feel pressured to sign a no-new taxes pledge.
"I'll sign the pledge that says I won't be signing pledges," he said.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.