Ralph Hughes' death last month is also a political obituary. No single person spent as much of his own time and money as this concrete magnate did to push Hillsborough's Republican leadership to the conservative fringe. His passing not only creates a void; it could fundamentally alter the face of Republican politics immediately — and for years to come.
Hughes' passing brought a reaction that was not only uncharacteristically tepid for such a strong, public figure but also remarkable for how it misread his impact on the party. He was remembered as a young man who "dabbled in boxing," becoming "the father of conservatism in Hillsborough County." "Dabbling" in boxing is like dabbling in pregnancy; it minimizes the passion he brought in the fight against government spending, taxes and regulation. Hughes always was all-in, and he expected those on the receiving end of his largesse and ever-present counsel to be there, too.
Hughes did not father conservatism so much as create openings for opportunistic politicians to run on that banner. Proteges such as Commissioners Jim Norman, Ken Hagan and Brian Blair were able to talk the talk even as the county enjoyed a revenue stream built almost entirely out of inflated real estate values. The burst of the housing bubble forced the first major break among commission Republicans last year when the board, citing economic concerns, killed Norman's big-ticket sports park. But it was hardly a display of fiscal sanity. The board is toying with spending $15-million on a slimmed-down park.
Commissioners Mark Sharpe and Rose Ferlita realized years ago the danger of putting their Republican political careers under the umbrella of a single patron. With Hughes' passing, Norman, Hagan and Blair have lost something of a father figure, and certainly the force most likely to defeat the referendum in November on whether to create a county mayor, which would rob them of stature and power. These three commissioners might need to move toward the middle and actually start doing things like return phone calls and meet face-to-face with constituents who oppose their agendas.
Hughes filled a void himself when he came onto the scene. County Republicans, especially the downtown business set, took for granted that the party had to attend to local affairs. That created a vacuum where Republican contenders in the 1990s could get away with campaigning on suburban issues and arguing that growth paid for itself even as the county's pro-development policies eroded the quality of suburban life and shifted the tax burden onto existing residents. The proposal for a county mayor is the backlash — the referendum organized by a Republican. With no one of Hughes' stature on the scene, GOP politics should move toward the middle at the very time the county looks to make the most significant change in governance in a quarter century.