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Years after his death, kingmaker Ralph Hughes still steers Hillsborough elections

Businessman Ralph Hughes played such an active role in Hillsborough County politics that, two years after his death, he's still influencing an election.

For decades, Hughes pumped cash into political causes, backing politicians who shared his belief in lower taxes and less regulation — with considerable success. He lobbied those same people when they got elected and spent thousands more advocating for issues and candidates in mailers he sent by the ream to residents.

"Ralph was a kingmaker," said Wayne Garcia, a political reporter and consultant in the Tampa Bay area for more than 20 years who now teaches journalism at the University of Tampa. "He was a turnkey operation for politics."

Now Hughes' money is front and center in a court case that threatens to derail the political career of one of his closest proteges, 18-year Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman.

A state judge has ruled that Norman, while seeking a state Senate seat, failed to disclose a lakefront Arkansas house on a required disclosure form. Court testimony revealed the 2006 purchase was made possible by a $500,000 gift from Hughes.

Norman testified it was a joint investment between his wife, Mearline, and Hughes, and didn't involve him, though money flowed through the couple's joint bank account. Leon County Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford called the assertion "patently absurd," tossing Norman off the ballot and throwing the Senate election into chaos. Norman is appealing the decision.

For longtime political activists, the case has served as a confirmation of their worst fears. They believed for years that Hughes held an undue, even unseemly sway over politics in Hillsborough County.

"It's a validation of what we thought was happening and couldn't prove," said Joyce Smith, a one-time political activist from Town 'N Country who teaches government and political science at St. Petersburg College and Hills­borough Community College.

• • •

Hughes hardly started off as a kingmaker, growing up in a working-class community east of Ybor City called Gary.

His father was a railroad man who died when Hughes was about 12. That left his mother to raise nine children, putting vegetables on the table from the family garden, said his son, Shea Hughes.

Ralph Hughes found success as a young man in the boxing ring, competing in more than 50 professional bouts and winning far more than he lost. But he also found trouble, getting into scrapes outside juke joints in the rough and tumble Six-Mile Creek area east of Tampa, according to newspaper accounts.

He did prison time after a judge found he beat and robbed a man while posing as a police officer, but was later pardoned. Somewhere along the way, he turned a corner, but friends say he was shaped by his early years.

"He came from a hardscrabble existence," Ronda Storms, a state senator and former Hillsborough County commissioner, said after his June 2008 death. "He believed making people's lives harder by taking money out of their wallets and giving it to government was wrong."

Hughes joined Cast-Crete Corp. in the 1950s as a salesman of precast concrete building materials. He rose through the ranks and ultimately took over the company.

In the years before Hughes' death, Cast-Crete focused on making concrete support beams for home construction. During the recent boom years, Shea Hughes estimated that Cast-Crete had 70 to 80 percent of the Florida market.

"My dad never cared about money," Shea Hughes said. "All he wanted to do was put a good product out there and do what's right. And he always said if you do what's right, good things will come your way."

A pending IRS lawsuit against his estate suggests a more complicated picture, claiming the elder Hughes died at the age of 77 owing $300 million in taxes, interest and penalties.

• • •

Newspaper stories show Hughes' activism in government dated at least to the 1960s, when he fought changes to the state building code that he argued would add to the cost of homes.

John Stanton, a longtime partner at Cast-Crete, said Hughes stepped up his political involvement in the late 1980s. He became a regular at government meetings, particularly the Hillsborough commission.

He addressed the board on all manner of taxes and government regulations relating to development, arguing that less of each was better. He led two separate groups in defeating proposals to raise the sales tax in the late 1980s and mid 1990s.

Hughes particularly protested impact fees, charges assessed to new construction to pay for things such as roads, schools and sewer lines. He argued they simply priced working families out of home ownership.

"I'm not a cynical person," he told the St. Petersburg Times in 1990. "I believe you can accomplish anything if it should be accomplished and if you work at it."

He worked at it. As Norman said after Hughes' death, "I've never seen anybody put their money where their mouth is like Mr. Hughes."

Each election cycle, Hughes — along with family members, businesses he owned and their associates — contributed tens of thousands of dollars to political campaigns. From 2000, the earliest year that records are available, until he died, the Hughes pack contributed at least $126,000 to Hillsborough political hopefuls.

Hughes spent untold amounts more on letters to civic leaders and average residents by the thousands. They championed lower taxes and bashed politicians who would raise them.

He gave $500,000 to an education-reform endowment created by former Gov. Jeb Bush. He paid $150,000 in 1997 for an outside examination of county government spending. Late in life, he donated $1 million to a political committee he created called "Let's Make the World a Better Place Because We Have Been Here," a name his son said came from a personal credo.

He was a leading force in helping transform the County Commission from a Democratic bastion to a place in which Republicans increasingly have held the majority of seats.

Hughes was an intensely private man, yet he got personally involved with political contests. He volunteered on campaigns, offering guidance on strategy and help with fundraising.

Former Democratic Commissioner Jan Platt recalls Hughes showing up to debates in 2000 as a stand-in for her opponent, Republican Joe Chillura.

"I would check the candidates to see who he gave money to so I would know who was going to be his puppets, which they were," she said.

Chillura, an architect, lost that race but maintained a strong friendship with Hughes. When troubles emerged with a new home Hughes was building shortly before his death, Chillura said he took over management of the project for free "because he had helped me out so many times before."

Ronda Storms said her young daughter referred to Hughes as "Uncle Ralph." When one of her political aides became gravely ill, Hughes showed up at the hospital to comfort her. "He had a real compassion for people who were down and out," Storms said.

Hughes has often been described as having a fatherly relationship with Norman. Testimony in the court case over the Arkansas home purchase underscored their ties.

Norman's attorney described Hughes as a "mentor" to his client's wife. Hughes and Norman often talked twice a day. Kevin Ambler, a onetime Norman pal who challenged him for the Senate seat then brought the lawsuit, said he often heard of them gambling together. "There can't be two closer individuals than Mr. Hughes and myself," Norman testified.

Staff writers Marlene Sokol and Jeff Testerman and researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Years after his death, kingmaker Ralph Hughes still steers Hillsborough elections 10/24/10 [Last modified: Monday, October 25, 2010 3:17pm]

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