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White's opponents say discrimination suit and his defense were his undoing

TAMPA — Like many voters in the District 3 Democratic primary for Hillsborough County Commission, Seminole Heights resident Bob Scheir said he is plenty familiar with Kevin White.

And he also knows Les Miller, the former state legislator who, along with newcomer Valerie Goddard, challenged White's bid for a second term Tuesday.

"Les Miller has always been very professional and, I believe, honest and trustworthy," said Scheir, 62, a WMNF-FM 88.5 community radio disc jockey. "Without saying anything too negative, I don't have the same feeling for Mr. White."

Scheir's observation captured the sentiment expressed repeatedly by voters from east, west and central Tampa on Wednesday, explaining their votes over the past two weeks leading to Tuesday's primary: A sense of trust in Miller, who spent 14 years in the state Legislature. But, more important, a complete loss of trust in White.

It may offer the best explanation for the drubbing of White in the primary on a scale unprecedented in recent Hillsborough history.

Miller destroyed White by more than a 2-1 vote ratio, despite being outspent by the same scale. White came in third place, winning only one of 105 precincts in the district.

"The residents of District 3 spoke," said Tampa City Council member Tom Scott, who held the seat before White and is now running for Tampa mayor. "They wanted a change."

White's troubles as a commissioner, and before that as a one-term Tampa council member, are well chronicled.

There was the elections law fine he paid for purchasing designer suits with money from a past campaign, which he attempted to hide in disclosure reports. There was the allegation that he improperly interfered in a traffic stop involving someone he called a goddaughter. And there was his continued claim of being a Navy veteran, though he served just 56 days.

Some voters reached Wednesday said his final undoing was a federal civil jury's finding in August 2009 that he sexually discriminated against a former aide by firing her for refusing his repeated advances.

It was not necessarily the episode itself, they said — but White's explanation.

One of the main claims in the case by former aide Alyssa Ogden was that White lured her on a what was described as a business trip to Atlanta days into her job in 2007, then made a pass at her. White's defense: that Ogden, then 22, came with him on the trip at the request of C. Blythe Andrews Jr., former publisher of the Florida Sentinel Bulletin newspaper, who was 77 at the time.

White claimed Andrews had a romantic interest in Ogden that he was merely helping facilitate. Andrews denied that.

The Sentinel Bulletin primarily serves African-American readers. Nearly 40 percent of District 3's residents are black. At the time White offered the defense, Andrews was terminally ill and has since died.

Harold Scott Jr., 69, a retired government employee who lives in River Grove Estates, said had it not been for that situation, he likely would have voted for White.

Scott described White as a commissioner who is responsive to constituents, often responding to calls for help after hours. And he said Scott fought for minority contractors seeking equal access to government work.

"He made a mistake," Scott said. "Nobody's perfect. But that killed him."

Many residents reached Wednesday were reluctant to discuss the sexual discrimination allegation, while acknowledging it played a role. But the word trust was used repeatedly.

"He's been a politician for a long time," said Belmont Heights resident Melvin Nelson, 63, speaking of Miller. "He's a person you can trust."

White's opponents said Wednesday that the lawsuit, and White's defense, was one of the predominant themes as they campaigned door to door. Miller said it came up "time and time and time again.

"I knew Mr. Andrews was sick for a very long time," Miller said. "Then to have that happen during this trying time in his life, it just sent a terrible message in the African-American community."

Goddard agreed. She said it continues to resonate throughout the district and probably Hillsborough County. After all, the county and White are suing each other over legal expenses.

His fellow commissioners are trying to recoup some of the roughly $450,000 the case cost taxpayers. And he's suing, arguing a county insurance policy should pay for the cost of his own attorneys on top of that.

"It seems to be a never-ending saga, not only from the incident but to the aftermath all the way to costing taxpayers money," Goddard said. "The fact that there's a lingering debt to the county, people are really angry about that."

Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

White's opponents say discrimination suit and his defense were his undoing 08/25/10 [Last modified: Thursday, August 26, 2010 12:01am]
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