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Commission candidates race to the end

The meet-and-greet barbecues and spaghetti fund-raisers are taking their toll on Joe Chillura Jr. The 51-year-old Tampa architect and Democratic candidate for County Commission has been fending off opponents for six months, first in a primary, then in a runoff and now in Tuesday's general election.

He won't quite compare his campaign with running a marathon, but he freely acknowledges that he and his family are tired.

"If it's God's will that I be on the County Commission, then I'll be there," Chillura said.

Meanwhile, his Republican opponent, banking consultant Charles C. "Chris" Hart, has been out campaigning, too, attending as many functions as he can pack into a day, but snaring less attention because he hasn't faced a challenger until now.

"I don't think this race, since the September primary, has gotten the attention it deserves," said the 46-year-old Hart. "I'm kind of taken aback that there hasn't been more attention to local government. That's one of the reasons we're so dissatisfied with local government."

With less than a week left until voters decide who they will put in the at-large District 7 seat, the only open seat this year, Hart is hoping to gain name recognition by advertising on radio.

On Monday, Hart started airing three ads, two of which introduce him and his platform. The third ad attacks Chillura as a practitioner of "politics as usual."

"Are we to believe what he's said for the last six months or done for the last 12 years?" Hart asks, making a reference to Chillura's tenure on the appointed City-County Planning Commission.

Hart has criticized Chillura for accepting government contracts for his architectural firm while sitting on the Planning Commission. Chillura points out that he has won all his contracts through a legal, competitive selection process. He, in turn, said Hart should have resigned, as Chillura did when he decided to run for County Commission.

As the campaign wanes, each candidate is trying to emphasize why he is different and better than his competitor.

On the surface, the two are much alike. Both are middle-age professionals from south Tampa who have served on the Planning Commission. Both voted for the county's current comprehensive plan; both call themselves consensus builders, and both point to their background and expertise in areas such as architecture or finance as important qualifications for office.

"Architects are trained to conceptualize and then translate that into reality with a fixed budget," Chillura said, adding that those skills can help him lead county government.

Hart, meanwhile, said he has "the financial management and strategic planning background that we so terribly need in county government." A former career Army officer, Hart has worked in Europe for NATO and in Washington for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the White House.

Chillura said a major difference between the two candidates is motivation.

"The thing that separates us is, I've given a great number of years to public service willingly," Chillura said, referring to time on the Planning Commission, Tampa City Council and the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council. "He (Hart) apparently got on the Planning Commission as a springboard for other political opportunities."

Hart said his reasons for running are purer than Chillura's.

"I don't have any baggage," Hart said. "I'm not going into this for my personal gain."

Hart also said he has a broader focus than Chillura, whom Hart characterizes as being interested in the urban core of Tampa and little else.

Hart said his skill "is recognizing we've got to have a government that represents all of Hillsborough County and an economy that recognizes all of Hillsborough County."

Chillura said he does indeed believe the city of Tampa deserves plenty of attention.

"For too many years, county commissioners who have run countywide are guilty of forgetting that Tampa is part of Hillsborough County," Chillura said.

But he said he has knowledge and concern about all areas of the county, urban and rural.

Chillura said he also plans to use radio advertising in the last days of the campaign, as well as direct mail. Chillura has raised more than $61,000 during his lengthy race, according to his latest campaign report. He had about $5,000 left to spend as of Oct. 12.

Hart, meanwhile, has raised nearly $30,000 and had $7,500 left to spend as of mid-October.