Thursday, May 24, 2018
Opinion

Political stakes too high to tune out

It's summertime, and the living is anything but easy.

While many Floridians with a little money and good sense are in the North Carolina mountains, the rest of us are slogging through an unusually early primary election season. It's hot, and we all should be on vacation instead of enduring the attack ads on cable television and in the mailbox. It's hard to get excited about many of these local races on the Aug. 14 ballot when the Republican National Convention is around the corner and the presidential election isn't until November. But absentee ballots are sitting on the dining room table, and early voting starts this week.

It's time to focus.

In many ways, the races on the primary ballot are more important in terms of how things work around here than many of those that will be on the November ballot. There are nonpartisan races for judges and school boards. There are primaries for the Legislature and county commissions that are the final say on who will fill those positions or virtually guarantee that the winner will take office — because there is only a write-in candidate in November or the Democrat or Republican waiting in the wings is a long shot.

While you have been at the beach or watching baseball, the Tampa Bay Times editorial board has been interviewing candidates and writing recommendations. You can see the full list and read the ones you missed at www.tampabay.com/opinion. It's work we take seriously, and our intent is to help better inform voters as they make their decisions about which candidates deserve their support.

This summer, the editorial board interviewed 133 candidates in Hillsborough, Hernando, Pasco and Pinellas counties. That's up a few from the 2010 primary, probably because of legislative redistricting and an unusual number of Republican primaries. It should have been at least 134 candidate interviews, but U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV, the favorite in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, declined our interview request (we weren't the only ones). We will invite him again before the general election. Maybe by then, Mack will understand the difference between the editorial board and the news side of the newspaper, where his personal attacks on Times' political editor Adam C. Smith are misdirected (Smith has no input on which candidates the editorial board recommends).

On the plus side, we didn't make any candidates cry this year during their interviews. But there were days when I felt like crying because some of the candidates were so unprepared. That was particularly true of many first-time Republican candidates for the Legislature, who don't know the first thing about property insurance, tax policy or anything else. They tend to be tea party types running to the right of current or former legislators who sound positively brilliant by comparison. I know the Legislature is so messed up it looks like anybody could do better, but before declaring you are the answer to Florida's problems, line up more volunteers than your grandparents and find Tallahassee on a map first.

There have been some encouraging moments. To be fair, there are some well-intentioned, thoughtful first-time candidates for the Legislature who would be a breath of fresh air. And there is hope for our courts. Some of our most important work involves interviewing and evaluating candidates for judge, because they are strangers to most voters and they aren't allowed to answer many policy questions. We have made our recommendations for Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court, but all of the candidates in those races have solid backgrounds and none of them would embarrass the judiciary. That hasn't always been the case in other years.

There are some races that are particularly important in each county. Three involve Republican primaries. In Pinellas, the race between incumbent Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and former Sheriff Everett Rice is a clear choice between the future and the past. In Pasco, the Republican primary for school superintendent between incumbent Heather Fiorentino and Kurt Browning, the former secretary of state and Pasco elections supervisor, is an opportunity to bring back a familiar face and restore competence to the leadership of the district. In Hernando, three Republican primaries for the county commission will determine the direction of a county that is in denial about its dire financial situation.

In Hillsborough, four School Board members face serious challenges in nonpartisan elections, and the Times recommends that three incumbents be re-elected. The races are a referendum on the direction set by Superintendent MaryEllen Elia, including the work done with the Gates Foundation, the emphasis on better preparing students for college, and the expansion of Advanced Placement classes. To turn in a different direction, as most of the challengers want, would be a mistake.

Our work on candidate recommendations for the primary is done. Now it's up to you to reach your own conclusions. Don't sit this election out and wait for November, because too many important decisions about the direction of Tampa Bay already will have been made.

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