We have been concerned for some time with the Hillsborough County elections office under Supervisor Buddy Johnson. His secrecy, bad judgment and inattention to detail are the wrong traits for any elected official, much less one entrusted with the sanctity of voting. But two stories by the Times' Jeff Testerman over the weekend bring this concern to a worrisome new level — one Republicans need to address before the party puts its chips on Johnson in this year's election.
Johnson was unqualified for the appointment Gov. Jeb Bush gave him in 2003, when the former supervisor, Pam Iorio, stepped down to run for Tampa mayor. His record since then has given a black eye to the office, the county, the former governor and the Republican Party. Whether losing votes, switching polling sites without adequate notice, not paying his taxes on time or leasing cattle in what looks like a dodge to avoid property taxes, Johnson has been a one-man band of bad press. His decision to pay hush money to a former aide represents a way of thinking that is out of synch with public service, openness and accountability.
That's where Testerman's latest stories come in. Johnson "was a hard man to find" when the NAACP wanted to question him as part of a federal voting rights case, the Times reported. It took a process server 18 days to hand Johnson a subpoena. During that time, Johnson did not return the man's phone calls and staffers said they had no idea where he was, when he would be in or how to contact him. Never mind that the case related directly to the supervisor's job — ensuring a fair, accurate and orderly vote. Johnson was the only one of six supervisors from around Florida subpoenaed to testify who could not be easily reached. And once he sat to be deposed, Johnson said he could not answer dozens of questions about how his office runs. He was unable to describe details about the voter registration process and derided the questioning as "a quiz" about "minutiae."
Bush had plenty of Republicans better suited for the appointment — Joe Chillura, Janet Kovach and Mark Proctor, among them — but Johnson deserved a chance to prove himself. On Day One, after all, he summed up the right approach: "You focus on detail." But Johnson's office is a shell of the order and professionalism Iorio left behind. His Democratic opponent this year, former County Commissioner Phyllis Busansky, has outraised him so far, even if you include two contributions to Johnson that were over the legal limit. Republicans owe it to the voters to come up with a better candidate. Johnson's incumbency is more a liability than an asset. If Republicans stick with him, they will make it easy for his Democratic challenger to make the race a stark contrast between opposite ideals of public service.