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Green is new power color in Hillsborough politics

Red, white and blue still hold a place in the hearts of Hillsborough County politicians _ and on their banners, buttons and bumper stickers, too. But these days, the most important color of all just might be green. That is green as in trees, forests, grass and meadows. Green as in the environment.

In the past two years, environmentalists have scored some impressive victories in the Hillsborough County political and power structure. With an increased awareness of environmental concerns among residents and a highly organized local movement to seize on it, the greening of Hillsborough shows no sign of slowing down.

The environmental movement "has matured to the point where it is not a radical fringe issue," said Roger Stewart, director of the county's Environmental Protection Commission (EPC).

"It's mature people integrating the quality of life element and all it means into their judgments on what should and should not happen in the community and who represents them," Stewart said.

That in turn seems to be shaping much of Hillsborough's agenda. Consider some of the events of the past two years:

Instrumental in County Commissioner Phyllis Busansky's win over a well-financed opponent in 1988, environmentalists scored an important gain this year with the victory of one of their own, Ed Turanchik, over incumbent Commissioner Haven Poe.

A sweeping $100-million bond issue that is one of the largest in the country for buying and preserving environmentally sensitive land was approved by Hillsborough voters earlier this month by a 3-1 margin.

Protests from environmentalists over Tampa Electric Co.'s plans to build a power plant near pristine Cockroach Bay got the company to

convene a blue-ribbon panel on the issue and eventually choose a different site.

Events in Hillsborough are mirroring a national trend, says Sharon Berube, chairwoman of the 1,500-member Tampa Bay Group of the Sierra Club. From Earth Day celebrations to biodegradable packaging in grocery stores, "environment has become a big issue," Berube said.

But Hillsborough has some distinctive factors of its own that fuel its progress.

The environment plays a bigger role in the lives of residents in a state such as Florida and a county such as Hillsborough than it would in other areas, observers say.

"We are so much more connected with our environment," said Turanchik, the former Sierra Club leader who parlayed his environmental stance and growth management platform into a commission seat. "You dump something in the ground, and it shows up in our drinking water very rapidly."

Busansky agreed.

"We can all talk about global warming, but that's more abstract than your piece of environmentally sensitive land in your county," she said.

And the fast-changing nature of a high-growth community such as Hillsborough makes it easier to see the detrimental effects man can have on the area's natural character, said Rich Paul, manager of the Audubon Society's Tampa Bay wildlife sanctuaries. Paul also served on the Tampa Electric power plant task force.

Finally, while many communities have residents who feel strongly about environmental issues, Hillsborough has translated feelings into action.

"In Hillsborough we're probably seeing more clout in environmental groups because some of them are just very professional, very well organized," said Scott Paine, adjunct professor of political science at the University of South Florida. "They know what they're doing. They know how to get the message out to the public."

Leading the way in influence is the Sierra Club, whose membership has more than doubled in the last three years, according to Berube.

The club was instrumental in pushing for environmental provisions in the county's comprehensive plan and is now fighting that plan in court because it didn't live up to the group's expectations. The club's tenacious organization helped provide campaign volunteers who were vital to Turanchik's victory.

And while national and state Sierra Clubs always have been politically involved, many say Hillsborough's group has perfected the art.

"It's just tremendous what they've been able to do," said Bob Sullivan, chairman of the Sierra Club's Suncoast Group, which is based in Pinellas County. "Overall they have a higher percentage of activism per member than other Sierra Club groups I've come across." The Suncoast Group has 500 more members than Tampa's but far less political involvement, Sullivan said.

In the past, Hillsborough's Sierra Club "has been on the defensive every time. We were fighting this or that," Berube said. "Now we have a chance to make a difference from the start. We can get people in office who can hear our concerns."

An important test of their momentum is the election campaign of Commissioner Jan Platt, a three-term veteran and the commission's staunchest environmentalist.

An anti-incumbent feeling has hurt some local politicians, but the Sierra Club and environmental activists have vowed to help Platt retain her seat against Republican Al Sinicrope.

While environment is a prominent political issue, it does not dominate Hillsborough's agenda. Although it's a major campaign issue in the governor's race, the environment appears to be of only moderate importance in Hillsborough's state legislative races.

And local environmentalists have seen at least one important effort backfire this year.

Berube points to the Sierra Club's first "environmental report card" on county commissioners' voting records as a positive effort, a way the group serves as a watchdog for the community.

But the club, which gave an "F" to three commissioners including Turanchik's opponent, had to issue corrections when another commissioner pointed out that the group had made errors in scoring.

Mishaps aside, Berube, Turanchik and others say politicians are taking notice of the new attitudes of their constituents. And they say environmental groups are likely to become even more politically oriented in the future.

"There is a significant voter population out there that's concerned about environmental issues," said Paine of USF.

The political sector "is where the battles are won and lost," Berube said. "To not be a part of it is unrealistic. If someone has complaints about the society they live in, they better vote. The political process is where it happens."