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Some Calvin Harris supporters worried about the incumbent commissioner's chances on Nov. 2

In years past, Pinellas County Commissioner Calvin Harris has waltzed into re-election.

But predictions of a big year for Republicans have prompted some Harris supporters to worry the Democrat could be in trouble Nov. 2 even though he faces Norm Roche, who has lost three previous elections.

"I don't think Calvin has raised the kind of money and run the kind of campaign he has in the past," said Jack Latvala, a Republican state Senate candidate whose firm produced direct mail for Harris' bid to keep the District 2 commission seat.

With a huge GOP swing, the race has the potential to be closer, "much, much more closer than anything we've seen before" in a countywide commission race, Latvala said. The last incumbent commissioner to lose an election was John Chesnut Jr. in 1992.

Roche, 48, of Clearwater, who lost past bids for the commission as a Democrat, is now running as a Republican. He still has the same message against government spending. But this year, county spending is a big issue, and tea party-style conservatives are aiding Republican issues, even though party leaders ignore and write off Roche.

Meanwhile, Harris' fundraising has lagged behind that of previous years. He raised $45,800 through Oct. 9, almost $30,000 less than at the same point in 2006. He routed Roche that year in the primary.

Harris, 69, of Clearwater recently began television advertising, sending a message that he's tough on spending, fought for tax breaks and fought for "reduced fees," a reference to successfully scuttling a proposal to charge park fees. At events, he also calls himself a forward-looking voice, citing his support for light rail and Roche's resistance.

Harris could not be reached to comment for this story. He did not return repeated phone and e-mail messages left over several days.

Voters seem more invigorated this year, Roche said. He has received more e-mails and calls about his campaign, he said.

"I think it's going well. I don't do polls; I don't have the money to do polls," Roche said Friday. "I've heard some encouraging things."

Not all Harris supporters think his seat is in jeopardy, nor do analysts.

If anything, donors don't think Harris needs the money against Roche's record of failure, said Harris fundraiser Alan Bomstein, a contractor.

Retired political science professor Darryl Paulson also doubts Roche has the "dynamics" to pull off a win after so many losses.

"I just don't think that anti-incumbent thing flows down to the local elections as much," said Bomstein, a longtime ally of the first African-American elected commissioner.

"I keep hearing this buzz around Roche mounting a real threat this time, but I haven't seen it."

But during Harris' tenure, county spending dramatically accelerated, and then the recession and state-imposed tax cuts led to layoffs and budget cuts. Roche has seized on that in his campaign.

"I believe very, very strongly that our county is in a mess and is in a ditch, and those that are at the helm of it are not necessarily the ones to get us out of it," Roche told a recent forum crowd.

Roche, a former county employee who is a safety and development manager for a geo-technical company, has a wit and a polished appeal. But his attacks on the county sometimes end without a long-term solution.

He complains that hundreds of millions in spending are "yet to be accounted for," though many of it is borne out in budgets that increased with staff and programs over the decade. More than 1,600 positions have been eliminated since 2007.

He also often struggles to pinpoint where waste occurred, pledging to do deep audits. He also recommends consolidations in some cases that are under way already, such as combining utilities and public works.

His bid, running on $11,000 in contributions, isn't considered near the robust challenge that Democrat Bob Hackworth has waged against Republican county Commissioner Susan Latvala for the north Pinellas District 4 seat.

But it's enough to have big names behind Harris concerned.

"I think it will be tougher than a lot more people think outwardly," said Ed Armstrong, a lawyer and lobbyist supporting Harris.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Some Calvin Harris supporters worried about the incumbent commissioner's chances on Nov. 2 10/23/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 23, 2010 4:31am]
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