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Unseating incumbent Pat Mulieri uphill battle for Ken Littlefield

Four years ago, County Commissioner Pat Mulieri had to fight off two fellow Republicans to keep her job. She barely broke a sweat.

Now, she has another challenger, this time one with perhaps more name recognition, at least in east Pasco: former legislator Ken Littlefield.

The two are running in the Aug. 24 Republican primary. Whoever wins faces non-party candidate Clay Colson, a Land O'Lakes activist, in November.

If the public is in the mood for ousting incumbents, Littlefield isn't counting on it for his race.

"I'm not sure (the mood) goes into the local level," he said.

Littlefield has spent much of his campaign courting voters at Republican club meetings. In a straw poll this month, more than 56 percent of the 200 participants at the East Pasco Tea Party Patriots said they would support him over Mulieri, who got about 18 percent of the votes.

Mulieri, meanwhile, has been showing up at veterans events, meeting with local businesses and picking up endorsements from the Pasco Professional Firefighters, Police Benevolent Association and Fraternal Order of Police.

But look at the money, and it's clear that Mulieri has a distinct advantage. As of late last month, Littlefield had raised $19,000 — all of it from his own wallet.

Mulieri, by contrast, had raised roughly $59,000 from sources ranging from lawyers and developers to utility companies and trash haulers.

If elected, Littlefield said he'd want to "head off" the county's plans to use tourism money to build a softball field complex at Starkey Ranch. "I don't think it's going to grab the attention of anybody outside west central Florida," he said.

He said he would tap the skills he learned as a legislator and a private business owner when it comes to crafting the budget and setting policies. One of those skills, he said, is "the ability to make decisions based on facts rather than emotion or politics."

Asked to differentiate himself from Mulieri, Littlefield cited an instance this year when she argued for a penny increase in the tourist tax but, seeing she lacked the votes, went ahead with the majority in holding the line on the tax rate. At the time, she said, it was "aye with a regret."

Littlefield said he agreed with her vote, but not with her backing off her earlier fight for the tax.

Mulieri said she can win based on her record, especially that of the last two years as the board sharpened its focus on economic development and began looking for ways to streamline operations.

She also cites figures showing that Pasco commissioners, unlike many of their counterparts in other counties, dialed down the property tax rates during the boom years.

"Within the past two years, the board has done a number of exciting things," she said. "I'd like to see it all come together."

Mulieri has earned a reputation as a hands-on commissioner, and she said one of her best qualities is helping hammer out compromises. She cites her role in negotiating who would pay to move utility lines as part of the State Road 56 extension.

"I see my strength in bringing people together," she said. "I like to be in the trenches."

Voters put Mulieri in office 16 years ago after she made a name for herself as a civic activist who kept a medical waste incinerator out of Gowers Corner.

But she angered environmentalists over her 2008 vote to allow a Shady Hills developer to shrink its portion of the wildlife corridor. She said she still agrees with environmentalists on many issues, but "it's how do you balance animals and people."

Come November, Littlefield predicts, Colson, a well-known environmental activist, will give one of the two Republicans a run for his or her money.

"I think he's viable, I really do," said Littlefield. "Clay's been around a long time and there are a lot of people who identify with his message. It will not be a cakewalk either for Pat or for me."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Unseating incumbent Pat Mulieri uphill battle for Ken Littlefield 08/18/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 18, 2010 9:05pm]
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