The outcome of the Hillsborough County Commission election may yet turn out to be a step in the right direction. While the losing Democratic candidates, John Dingfelder and Linda Saul-Sena, would have provided more enlightened leadership, two Republican winners, Victor Crist and Sandy Murman, are not the polarizing types who have held sway in recent years and driven the county to a dysfunctional state. The new commission that takes over this month should work to build a consensus on jobs, transportation and other nonpartisan issues. Voters want an efficient government that also looks ahead.
The brightest spot is not so much who joined the board but who left. Democrat Kevin White's scandal-plagued tenure ended with his primary loss to former state legislator Les Miller, who has the respect and contacts to put east Tampa, Hillsborough's poorest district, on the political radar. Longtime Commissioner Jim Norman won a Florida Senate seat, removing a heavy hand at County Center whose support for urban sprawl helped put county taxpayers in a financial bind. Crist, Murman and Miller bring a higher level of sophistication. They served together in Tallahassee and worked to represent Hillsborough as members of the county's legislative delegation. Their focus on results also should bring out more from the professional staff.
The biggest change may come in tone, not policy. This group may be less inclined to put a transit increase like the one that voters rejected on a future ballot, but that effort went forward this year only because two Republican commissioners saw political gain in appealing to urban Democrats. Five Republicans will dominate the seven-member board — the same as now — but the members seem more likely to collaborate across and within party lines. Murman, Crist and Miller could work with Commissioners Mark Sharpe and Kevin Beckner to address a range of problems affecting both urban and suburban areas, from the rise in gang-related violence and prescription drug abuse to the impact that joblessness and foreclosures are having on the neighborhoods and the tax base.
The county's economy may not come roaring back anytime soon, but that is no reason that this new commission should content itself in the margins of small ideas. Sharpe distinguished himself by being the lone incumbent to lead the charge for the transit initiative. The county needs to improve the proposal and bring it back if it hopes to position the region to compete. The new board has a supermajority that is in touch with the big-city problems that both urban and suburban areas face, from homelessness and bad planning to the scarcity of natural resources. Members need to confront these issues head-on. The down economy is not an excuse to dawdle but a challenge to move forward.