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Discerning voters cross party lines in Pinellas races

Pinellas Democratic Party leaders offer all sorts of reasons for the Republican sweep of county races in an election where voters delivered a tsunami of support for the Democratic presidential candidate.

Here's a reason they aren't likely to mention: With few exceptions, the Democrats fielded a pitiful slate of county candidates — people who were inexperienced, unknown, underfunded and unable to compete. No wonder so many voters colored in the oval beside Barack Obama's name and then jumped ship to vote for Republicans for county offices.

Pinellas Dems had so much going for them this election cycle: Obama; a surge in Democratic voter registrations that gave them the majority; Republicans nationally and locally who provided a boatload of screw-ups. Despite all that, local Republicans still beat the socks off the Democrats.

It wasn't that Republicans weren't vulnerable. Republican Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark was frequently criticized, so you'd think Democrats could have fielded a viable challenger.

But there was only Jack Killingsworth, a retired electrical engineer who had never overseen an election, and Clark walloped him with 61 percent of the vote.

Republican Pam Dubov, longtime chief deputy property appraiser who ran to succeed retiring Property Appraiser Jim Smith, was vulnerable because of her friendship with Smith, who was embroiled in a controversial private land deal with the county. But the Democrats offered up political unknown Ben Friedlander, a Realtor, not an appraiser, so Dubov beat him easily.

Republican Sheriff Jim Coats got more votes than John McCain in Pinellas County, and no wonder. His Democratic challenger, Randall Jones, was woefully unprepared to be sheriff.

Despite the mood for change this election year, Pinellas voters chose only Republicans in the three races for the Republican-dominated County Commission. Voters still preferred incumbent Karen Seel over Democrat Norm Roche, who is now a three-time loser in commission races. Republican Neil Brickfield beat Paul Matton, who was so uninformed about county government that the Democrats should have been embarrassed to promote his election. Former St. Petersburg City Council member Rene Flowers had name recognition in St. Pete but not countywide, so School Board veteran Nancy Bostock brought in the win for Republicans.

Democrats can't just throw people who are unknown and unprepared into county races and expect to end up in the winners' column. If they can't field candidates with immediate name recognition and relevant experience — and why can't they? — city governments provide a training ground and a path to higher office. Examples: Seel, a former Clearwater commissioner; Brickfield, a former Safety Harbor commissioner; and County Commission Chairman Bob Stewart, who was a St. Petersburg City Councilman. They are all Republicans.

Give the voters credit. In the 2008 election, they knew which political party provided the candidates best prepared to lead Pinellas.

Diane Steinle is editor of editorials for the North Pinellas editions of the Times.

Discerning voters cross party lines in Pinellas races 11/08/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 12, 2008 4:42pm]
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