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Supervisor of Elections Phyllis Busansky dies at 72, after a lifetime of public service

TAMPA — As she zipped around town, Phyllis Busansky was a sight, her tall frame squeezed into a red Mustang ragtop convertible.

Her favorite word was "FABulous!" Everything was fabulous. Everyone was fabulous.

With her style came substance. In three decades of Hillsborough County public service, she energized programs for the elderly and overhauled health care for the poor. Last year, she defeated Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson and vowed to restore confidence in a troubled office.

On Tuesday, Busansky was found dead on the floor of a St. Augustine hotel room. She was 72. Busansky was attending a conference of Florida elections supervisors and, by mid-morning, news of her death rippled the conference floor and through BlackBerry and Twitter messages sent across the state.

"She was one of a kind and we are fortunate that she walked amongst us," said former Hillsborough County Commissioner Jan Platt, who served on the board with Busansky for eight years.

"She was ethical, professional, and she was a public servant.''

• • •

Busansky was born Phyllis Hendler in Hartford, Conn., an only child who buried herself in books. She graduated from Wheaton College in 1959 with a degree in English literature. She married Sheldon Busansky, following him to Clearwater when he was moved by his company, Honeywell, Inc., in 1962.

With a 6-month-old child, Busansky hired a babysitter so she could tutor students in Pinellas County schools. The civil rights movement stoked her interest and Busansky wanted to make a difference, said Richard Birnholz, senior rabbi at Schaarai Zedek, a South Tampa synagogue Busansky attended.

It was then she also started a scholarship fund for African-American students.

When the Busanskys moved to Tampa in the late 1970s, they had three children and Busansky was quickly hired as Hillsborough's director of Aging Services. Platt, who was a commissioner then, said she was a star in the job.

A bribery scandal roiled county politics for a time in the 1980s, sending three commissioners to jail and unsettling the political establishment. Busansky stepped into the void, running as an underdog in 1988 against Tom Vann, a 10-year veteran of the Tampa City Council who had a 4-1 advantage in campaign contributions.

Showing the political smarts that would become her trademark, Busansky attacked Vann's strength. While his campaign spent thousands on pricey billboards, Busansky relied on volunteers holding her placards. The medium was the message: Vann was big money; Busansky was for the people.

"Jan Platt was already elected, but Busansky really marked the beginning of a new era," said former County Commissioner Ed Turanchik, who served with Busansky for six years on the board.

It was an era of reform, and one change that looms large was the program that Busansky got passed.

Hillsborough County was losing millions every year on health care for the poor.

Busansky collaborated with Jay Wolfson, who is now a USF professor of public health and medicine, and Peter Levin, who was USF's dean of public health. They sketched out a plan based upon a local sales tax for health care. "We spread a bunch of stuff out on the table and ended up drawing the plan out on a napkin," said Wolfson. It passed, and has been estimated to have saved lives by encouraging poor people to seek preventative care, and to have saved millions of dollars.

"Without Phyllis, it couldn't have happened," Wolfson said. "She had the vision. It was her doggedness, almost an aggressive vibrancy, that made this thing work. She had a tirelessness that wore everybody else out and wore her opponents down."

Former county administrator Fred Karl said he enjoyed collaborating with Busansky.

"Her opponents would underestimate her," he said. "Part of her charm was she would make you feel that you were equal to her, but you really weren't. She was smarter than the rest of us."

She ran for Congress in 1996, but lost. And served as executive director of the state's welfare system between 1996 and 1998.

She lost again when she ran for Congress in 2006. Then turned her attention to the supervisor of elections office, having witnessed first-hand Buddy Johnson's handling of the job. She was unimpressed and decided to challenge him.

"She was always very confident that she could win, and that she could turn that office around," Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said.

Busansky prevailed. Upon taking office, she was left with a deficit of at least $2 million. In January, she held a news conference announcing that her office had discovered a batch of uncounted ballots in a warehouse.

On Monday night, during a conference of elections supervisors in St. Augustine, Busansky retired for bed in seemingly good condition. But on Tuesday morning, she hadn't showed and her concerned staff called security.

St. Johns County sheriff's deputies found her on the floor with no trauma to her body. Her physician advised authorities she had "extensive medical history."

In August 2007, she had a malignant tumor removed from her lung, but didn't require chemotherapy or radiation. No other health issues are known. Her family declined comment.

The cavernous first floor of County Center was noticeably quieter Tuesday as word spread.

"It's a hard day, a very hard day," said administration director Tim Bridge.

She is survived by her husband, two sons and a daughter, and nine grandchildren.

Flags will fly at half-staff at all county buildings until Friday. A memorial will be held Friday at Schaarai Zedek, a synagogue on 3303 W Swann Ave. at 11 a.m.

Gov. Charlie Crist is expected to name an interim replacement until a 2010 special election determines a new supervisor.

Many wonder what might have been.

"She had a mission," said Mary Repper, Busansky's former political consultant. "She wanted to make that office so good and so consumer-friendly. The good thing is, she went out a winner."

Times staff writers Janet Zink, Jeff Testerman, Sue Carlton, Kim Wilmath, Bill Varian and Ileana Morales contributed to this story. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or

What they're saying

"She loved public service. She kept a sign in her office of the Kennedy quote, 'It's okay to dream.' I guess she died doing what she loved most."

Former Hillsborough County Commissioner Joe Chillura, who served with Busansky

"How sad that death claimed her just as she was embarking on a new challenge that she loved very much. The public needed her and this was her calling."

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who served as supervisor of elections before getting elected mayor in 2003. She also served on the commission with Busansky

"Her passing will leave a tremendous hole in the community. Her best attribute was that she had ideas, and, unlike others who have ideas, she followed through."

Fred Karl, former Florida supreme court justice, state senator, Tampa General Hospital president, and Hillsborough County administrator.

"In her too short tenure in that office, Ms. Busansky had already greatly opened access to citizens, improved communication with the public and worked tirelessly to restore the people's confidence in the election process."

Ken Hagan, Hillsborough County Commissioner.

"My heart goes out to Mr. Busansky and the Busansky family. I wish them my sincerest sympathies as they recover from their great and sudden loss. I'm sure Phyllis would've done a good job as supervisor of elections."

Former Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson, who lost to Busansky in November.

"Phyllis was the best kind of public servant. Bright, ethical, charismatic and dedicated. She was always a really progressive, free-thinking person.

Tampa City Council member Linda Saul-Sena.

Supervisor of Elections Phyllis Busansky dies at 72, after a lifetime of public service 06/23/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 27, 2009 11:30am]
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