Thursday, January 18, 2018

Minority decides who runs important offices in Pasco

Tuesday morning, I am in the minority. I am a voter.

At my voting precinct are candidates for Pasco school superintendent, School Board, County Commission, county judge and state senator. Everyone else has sent surrogates: siblings, spouses, offspring, friends, co-workers, supporters. They all hold signs. They all try for one last chance at influencing the outcome of the election.

By noon at Land O'Lakes Recreation Center, the balloting location for Precinct 110 and its 7,279 registered voters, just 170 people had voted in person, an average of 34 for each of the five hours the polls had been open. By 3 p.m., four hours before the close of the polls, in-person turnout stood at less than 300 people. Another 657 voted early or by absentee ballot.

Campaign volunteers outnumber actual voters. It becomes a standard punch line. So much so that some of the sign-holders wonder if they should try a different location. The near universal consensus: Don't bother. Things are slow all over.

Some of these people are better prepared than others. School Board member Joanne Hurley recites the list of provisions.

Sunscreen. Bananas. Water.

Still, between precinct stops, she goes home to change into shorts after finding the morning temperatures too uncomfortable. By midafternoon the thermometer reaches 95 degrees, a scorching end to a sometimes blistering primary campaign season. At this hour, though, there are no burned-out candidates. The winners and losers are hours away. Right now, everyone is hopeful.

Pasco Commissioner Jack Mariano, in a starched white dress shirt and patriotic tie, puts a campaign sign into the grass of the recreation center driveway. It is 10 a.m. and he's got 25 more signs to deliver. He spent Monday evening walking around Jasmine Lakes, Palm Terrace and Gulf Highlands — the blue-collar neighborhoods in west Pasco served by Aqua Utilities. Mariano led the charge on the county level to lower the price of the water and sewer service to those customers. Of course, he wanted to remind those residents and voters of who looked out for their interests.

The negative campaigning and avalanche of direct mail from the supporters of his opponent, Bill Gunter, "excited my base,'' Mariano says. He can't resist his own shot as well.

"Think of the money they spent. Think of the kids we could have taken to MOSI (Museum of Science and Industry) and educated those kids about drugs.''

He isn't the only candidate who believes his core support is energized. Chris Gregg, running for the Republican nomination for the District 3 County Commission seat, says the choice of U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as the presumed Republican vice presidential nominee reinforces his own message "that we can't continue the same spending spree.''

A handful of voters echo a similar sentiment of seeking change, but for different reasons.

The race for Pasco school superintendent brings Cody Burdick, a 23-year-old University of South Florida student to the polls. He says he voted for Kurt Browning, the challenger to two-term incumbent Heather Fiorentino.

How come?

"My mom's a teacher.''

Say no more.

Gideon Hipps, 50, a registered nurse, made sure he voted for U.S. Rep. Connie Mack in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate. On the down ballot races, he admits to relying on the advice of his father-in-law and voting against the incumbents in the Pasco commission races.

"If you want to change things,'' says Hipps, "You've got to start doing it at our local level before we move it up the ladder.''

Later, Fiorentino mentions her own interaction with the voting public.

"A lot of voters are ready for the election to be over,'' she says. "They want their mailboxes back. And, they're ready for us to unite as parties.''

Indeed. Most of the infrequent voters appear to have their decisions made. They walk into the recreation center with completed sample ballots or with their own notes. One man, however, seeks advice on school races.

He approaches a Browning volunteer, reads her sign and peers down at his sample ballot. "Kurt Browning? Okay,'' he says. He looks at Hurley, but does not recognize her. The volunteer identifies the School Board chairman for him. "Joanne Hurley? Okay.'' He walks away to help decide who will guide the organization responsible for educating 67,000 students.

Uninformed? Apparently. But, at least he votes.

He, too, is in the minority.

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