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Hillsborough prosecutor's race heats up

To those who know some of the political history of the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office, this year's Fourth of July Parade in Brandon might have been a bit perplexing.

Democratic incumbent Harry Lee Coe was there leaving no hand unshaken, working the crowd as he had last election, when many thought State Attorney Bill James could not be beaten. Some of the folks standing beside Coe on the Fourth had once campaigned for James.

Also in the parade was Republican Mike Kavouklis, once an ardent Coe ally, now a political adversary working hard to win the job for himself.

Odder still, there was talk of another Republican candidate, John Moser _ but no sightings this Independence Day, considered by politicians a mandatory-attendance event.

On Friday, the final chance to qualify for the ballot, the field became clear: Coe the lone Democrat, and two Republican hopefuls. They are an eccentric incumbent, a hard-edged challenger and a political newcomer _ all hoping to be the county's top prosecutor next year.

Coe rides again

The state attorney could not be still.

The parade was about to start, and Coe supporters were waiting in the bed of a shiny, red truck, between McGruff the Crime Dog and the Red-White-and-Blue Kazoo Review.

Last time, Coe said, he knocked on more than 5,000 doors, and he swears no one was rude to him. Even his critics acknowledge that Coe, 64, is something to behold on the campaign trail, cutting across the county like some sort of Tasmanian Devil. He is still hailed as "Hangin' Harry," from his reputation for harsh sentences in 22 years as a judge.

But during Coe's term as prosecutor, editorial writers and columnists have not been as kind. He has been called eccentric, from his notoriously empty desk top to his sometimes odd courtroom actions. In the nationally publicized case of Christopher Wilson, the black man set afire by two white men, critics noted that Coe moved furniture in the courtroom and said little in jury selection.

Coe shrugs it off, saying he is proud of his office's record, his hardworking staff and innovative programs for the elderly and domestic violence victims and white collar and environmental crimes.

"The issues here _ crime, and being tough and being preventive _ are too important to become a personality war," he said. "I don't think (voters) care about whether I move furniture or what I have on my desk."

Coe has overcome more serious criticism. After questions were raised about his role in the delayed investigation of a sex abuse case involving the husband of a prominent Democrat, a grand jury later exonerated him of any wrongdoing. In the racial burning case, both men were put in prison, and an appeals court found no error in the trial.

No petunia

Mike Kavouklis is not a man to mince words.

Diminutive, white-haired and filled with hard-edged energy, Kavouklis sat in his downtown Tampa office and ticked off goals: aggressive lawyers, trained investigators, tough prosecution of juveniles, and zero tolerance of domestic violence, rape and child abuse.

He is not shy about the man he once supported, a man he now calls "an embarrassment" in an office he terms "void of any leadership, competence or character."

On his pastel walls, an Ellis Island print shares space with certificates that trace 34 years of varied legal background: county and municipal judge, assistant attorney general, state prosecutor, Hillsborough County attorney.

"Mr. Coe became a great disappointment," said Kavouklis, 60, who was raised in Tarpon Springs by Greek-born parents. Coe promised not to be a figurehead, "to be more fair and even-handed," he said.

Said Coe: "He felt he was going to get a job here, and I didn't hire him. . . . I'm not saying what effect that had. He will have to answer that."

Kavouklis vehemently denies that. In fact, he is often vehement _ which got him into trouble in court.

In 1991, a judge found him guilty of three counts of criminal contempt for disobeying her orders and sentenced him to fines and probation. He was later cleared of another allegation, that he called the trial judge a "b----," and the state Bar declined to sanction him, saying the exchanges were heated but not meant to embarrass her.

Kavouklis says he was aggressively defending his client and seems surprised that anyone would think he has a temper. He sees himself as expressive and outspoken, "a person of passion."

"A state attorney shouldn't be a petunia, either," he said. "They will not consider Mike Kavouklis a joke."

No turning back

John Moser made his way through the narrow hallways of the Tampa Police Department, his hawkish blue eyes searching to engage someone long enough to press a brochure into his hand.

"You may not know his name, but you should," it reads, summing up Moser's 3-month-old campaign to unseat Coe.

"I've been a prosecutor for 11 years," Moser, 41, tells officers at roll call, in the crisp tone of a man who has spent nearly 20 years in the military. A major in the Army reserves, he regularly works at Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base as an intelligence analyst.

Moser worked as a Hillsborough prosecutor and later at the Statewide Prosecutor's Office _ a job he gladly would have kept had he not been required to resign to run. For Moser, a single parent of four, there is no turning back, which may account for the passion in his delivery.

"Are there people out there who could be a better state attorney than me?" he asked. "Yes. But they're not in the race."

Moser's energy may be an asset on the campaign trail, but his political inexperience shows.

Take July Fourth. While his opponents were meeting voters, Moser was with his eldest son in the Keys on a Boy Scout outing. His staff "questioned my sanity," but he said he had no regrets.

Parades notwithstanding, there has been cause for optimism in the Moser camp. In his short time stumping, he has amassed about $28,000. Kavouklis has raised slightly more than $42,000 since he became a candidate in October. Coe has raised nearly $97,000.

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