Daniel Ruth

Buddy's elections legacy: the horror

There probably have been days when newly minted Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Phyllis Busansky has gently tiptoed into work wary of even opening up her desk drawer, fearful that she'll find water-soaked "misplaced" Chicago ballots from the 1960 Nixon/Kennedy presidential race.

This is the price Busansky has paid for her political ambition – to find herself overseeing a government agency known as the place where reality goes to die.

You know you've inherited a Katrina-esque bureaucracy when your predecessor's managerial skills make Marlon Brando's Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now look like Warren Buffett.

Busansky has found herself less of an executive running a government bureaucracy and more of a hazardous waste fumigator as she tries to clean up the Rube Goldberg-like disaster left behind by Buddy Johnson, who was to the electoral process what Priscilla Presley is to plastic surgery. It isn't pretty.

The bill of particulars in this "Dufus Affair" is long and ugly and oh-so-very Buddy. It should have been a tipoff that the former supervisor of derelictions was more of an acquired taste than haggis when it became abundantly clear Johnson treated his office as if it were something of a hybrid between the witness protection program and a cloistered monastery.

Good grief. There were times when it was easier to find Osama bin Laden rather than the Greta Garbo of the ballot box, even on election nights as the counting of votes under Johnson's watch turned into a game of 52 Pick-up.

Since his defeat by Busansky, who is probably wishing for a re-count so she could spot her opponent a couple thousand votes to get out of this mess, revelations have continued to surface like a festering boil detailing in vivid detail that Johnson possessed all the organizational acumen of the guys orchestrating a college sorority house panty raid.

From attempting to stiff the taxpayers with a $2.3 million tab for so-called "unanticipated expenses" associated with the 2008 elections; to spending $407,000 for 220 ballot boxes, which other supervisors spent a fraction to purchase; to losing boxes of uncounted votes; to fudging on his expense account for trips he didn't even take (but maybe thought he did?); Buddy Johnson has dubiously managed to take his place among this community's long Ring of Ding-A-Lings who managed to plunge their jowls into the public trough.

Wait! More than $2 million for "unanticipated expenses"? For what? Adderall? Just asking.

Remarkably, Johnson has successfully surpassed as an even bigger oddball Jim Fair, who was supervisor of elections back in the 1960s. Fair created a counter-culture group he called the Salvation Navy and turned the office into something out of Woodstock meets Easy Rider.

Since being sworn into office, which probably included a few additional oaths uttered by Busanky, the new supervisor has busied herself in an effort to untie Johnson's Gordian Knot of incompetence — dismantling the gun turrets, draining the moat, laying off the retired Stasi security guards and spackling over the poison dart maze leading to Johnson's former lair.

In time, in a long time perhaps, Busansky will eventually delouse the elections office of the tawdry remnants of Johnson's Ezra Pound-esque tenure. But the inglorious Johnson Years ought not to be forgotten.

The public, after all, elected a very weird, strange man to office. This was like approving Mickey Rourke to become the White House chief of protocol.

Had Johnson found his way onto the Hillsborough County Commission, he could have spent his time harmlessly enough like so many other board members have, railing again the Dewey Decimal System, or bloviating over homosexuals, or naming Moral Courage Awards in honor of dead right-wing windbags with a checkbook, or performing lap dances for real estate developers.

Instead, Johnson pursued a public service job that actually required him to show up for work, lead people, manage a budget, count votes — be held accountable. No good came from this.

To be sure, Buddy Johnson has achieved a status as the village's hapless Sad Sack, a poor chap who was given a perfectly functioning elections office and in short order devolved it into a civic embarrassment.

And after all the jokes, the tittering, the rolled eyes, he is a very pathetic figure. There's no disgrace to losing an election. That's all part of the democratic process.

But Buddy Johnson lost more than a campaign to hold onto his job.

He lost the campaign to hold onto his dignity — and it was a self-inflicted defeat.

Buddy's elections legacy: the horror 01/29/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 29, 2009 8:44pm]

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