As voters fill out mail ballots or visit early voting sites this weekend, they should recognize that the stakes are higher than the low-key, low-turnout primary election would suggest. Nonpartisan races for judge and school board are open to all voters and will be decided on Tuesday, except in a handful of cases where there are more than two candidates and a November runoff is possible. Outcomes of primary races for county commissions and legislative seats could be revealing about the shifting moods of both Democrats and Republicans.
In Pinellas County, two Republican primaries for County Commission could be particularly illuminating, and voters should resist the impulse to go with the most familiar names. Incumbent Norm Roche swept into office with support from an angry tea party wing four years ago, and he has been an uncooperative, divisive presence who frustrates other commissioners from both political parties. Roche pushed to take fluoride out of the drinking water in 2011 and was the only commissioner to vote against putting it back in last year after a public backlash. The Times recommends Ed Hooper, a former Clearwater city commissioner and departing state legislator who is a mainstream conservative with a more even temperament, in this District 2 countywide race.
In the crowded Republican primary for District 4 in North Pinellas, the Times recommends Dunedin Mayor Dave Eggers based on his experience and consensus-building skills. There are other credible options among the seven candidates, including Palm Harbor dentist Johnny Johnson and Oldsmar City Council member Jim Ronecker. Former state legislator Peter Nehr has the most familiar name. He also has a history of personal bankruptcy filings, inappropriate personal conduct and ownership of an Internet sweepstakes cafe even as law enforcement officials were shutting down those illegal gambling operations. That record led Sen. Jack Latvala, the county's most influential Republican, and former Sheriff Jim Coats to urge voters to steer clear of Nehr. It is sound advice, because Nehr's history of poor judgment suggests he would set the commission backward.
In Hillsborough County, the outcomes in three races will measure voter attitudes about nasty campaign attacks, outside influences and conservative hyperbole.
In the four-way Democratic race for Florida House District 61, supporters of Sean Shaw have used out-of-town resources and race-baiting politics to attack Shaw's main rival, Ed Narain. The mailers tar Narain as a protege of Gov. Rick Scott, a blatant attempt to inflame the heavily black, liberal district in east and central Tampa. These may be the usual tactics from the hired guns in Tallahassee, but voters in this district need a committed local voice. The Times recommends Narain.
The three-way Republican primary for the east Hillsborough County Commission seat has been about everything but competence. That's because Janet Dougherty is the only candidate who has it. While the other campaigns try to out-pander each other and pump up their conservative credentials, Dougherty talks about how fast-growing District 4 can protect its quality of life. It is an agenda that well serves the suburbs, and the Times recommends her.
No race in Hillsborough offers voters such a stark choice as that for the Group 12 county court seat. The Times recommends incumbent Chris Nash, who has done a superb job. Norman S. Cannella has run a mean-spirited and overly political campaign. He faults Nash for accepting an appointment to the bench even though Cannella himself was up for a gubernatorial appointment to the county bench four years ago.
In Pasco County, the three-person Republican primary for the District 2 commission seat being vacated by 20-year incumbent Pat Mulieri has turned into a referendum on special interest money and Tallahassee influence. Businessman Mike Moore had raised close to $100,000 as of last week, quadrupling the combined total of his two opponents, former state Rep. Ken Littlefield and financial planner Bob Robertson. After a Tallahassee electioneering committee also mailed two full-color campaign pieces supporting Moore, Littlefield urged voters to reject outside influences, saying Moore is beholden "to Tallahassee and its special interest groups and their seemingly unlimited amounts of money to make sure their handpicked candidates are elected." The Times recommends Robertson.