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District 2 candidates water down rhetoric

Regardless of which candidate is elected to fill the County Commission seat being vacated by Charles Rainey, one thing seems certain: The new commissioner will take a kinder, gentler stance on water issues.

"This whole thing has been kind of like a bad divorce," Belleair Mayor Stephen Watts, a candidate for the post, said about Pinellas' battles with the Southwest Florida Management District and commissioners in water-rich Pasco and Hillsborough counties. "All this fighting just doesn't solve a thing."

During interviews last week, none of the three candidates directly criticized the tough stance that Rainey, a dominant Tampa Bay political force for nearly 30 years who has resigned effective this fall, has taken in the water wars.

But clearly, none will approach the issue with Rainey's brashness.

"We have to get along with our neighbors," said Mary Rainey, who was the retiring commissioner's wife for 19 years before they divorced in 1994, and is seeking to replace him. "Pinellas County is just spending too much money on lawyers."

Even Barbara Sheen Todd, who served with Charles Rainey during her earlier 14-year stint on the commission, advocates a more moderate approach.

"We need to come up with some creative alternatives and mend relationships with our colleagues across the bay," the candidate said.

Charles Rainey represents District 2, which covers the beach communities from Madeira Beach south, much of western St. Petersburg, some of Pinellas Park and the southern tip of the Seminole area. Though the new commissioner also will represent that district, Republicans countywide are eligible to vote in the Sept. 3 primary.

There are no challengers on the Democratic side, so if any of the three gets more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary, that candidate will occupy the seat for the remaining two years of Rainey's term. If no one achieves 50 percent, the two top vote-getters will square off in a second primary Oct. 1. The job pays $61,116 a year.

Aside from water, it wasn't roads or crime, but politics that was the dominant issue in the candidates' minds last week. With fewer than 40 days left before the primary, they were hustling to raise money, knock on doors and shake hands.

Mary Rainey said she is doing most of her campaigning in the district. She said the 14 years she spent running a travel agency and the political experience she picked up as Charles Rainey's wife make her qualified.

"He was always on the phone, and I heard all those one-sided conversations," said Mary Rainey, who said she considered running against her ex-husband in 1994. "I'm just younger and healthier than him, and I can carry it on."

And while she has said that her stance on most issues matches her ex-husband's, she criticized Todd as being a throwback to the politics of the past.

"She represents what used to be," Mary Raineysaid of Todd, who stepped down from her District 5 commission seat in 1994 to run for lieutenant governor with failed gubernatorial candidate Jim Smith. "We need to move on."

But Todd said the person who replaces Charles Rainey needs the kind of institutional knowledge she has.

"I've got the historical experience, but I'm not stuck in a groove either," said Todd, a self-described "visionary."

"If I were on the commission, I'd like to see the whole board get together for a day or two and just do some visioning of what we would like to see Pinellas County look like in 15 to 20 years."

Institutional knowledge may not be Watts' strong suit; he wasn't sure how to pronounce the name of Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik, who for months has traded barbs with Charles Rainey over water issues. But the Clearwater lawyer said heproved he was a quick learner during his two years on the Belleair Town Commission and in his yearlong tenure as mayor.

"I know I can work the system," he said. "I can make a decision. I know how to break it down and solve a problem. I know how to negotiate."

He bristles when reminded that his name recognition doesn't match that of Todd, who has a network of about 400 volunteers, and is almost like an incumbent.

"You don't think I've got name recognition?" asked Watts, who says he ran Smith's 1994 Pinellas County campaign. "Watch me. I'm going to be everywhere in the next six weeks."

He said he is about halfway to his goal of raising at least $60,000.

"When people see my campaign contribution reports, they will know that I can beat Barbara Todd."

But Todd sounded just as confident.

"I don't know why he's running, because I'm going to win," she said.

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