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Commission race attracts varied field

Published Sep. 16, 2005

Sandra Wilson's surprise announcement last winter that she would not seek re-election to the Hillsborough County Commission has set off a race to replace her that features a little bit of everything.

With six weeks before the Democratic primary, former Tampa City Council member Perry C. Harvey Jr. has emerged as the candidate with the highest profile and most money.

Harvey's Democratic opponents include community activist Betty Reed, the Rev. Thomas Scott, businessman Bennie Small Jr. and King High School math teacher George W. Wilds.

The winner of the primary will face Republican Barbara Merritt, who is so well-known as a neighborhood organizer that she picked up the nickname "Housewife from hell."

Those six candidates are vying for a $61,233-per-year job representing County Commission District 3, which stretches from Tampa's inner-city south to Palm River and east to Seffner.

Since 1985, three black commissioners _ Rubin Padgett, the late Sylvia Rodriguez Kimbell and Wilson _ have represented District 3. Although often referred to as the commission's "black seat," 57 percent of its registered voters are white and 36 percent are black. Two-thirds are Democrats.

When political observers talk about the race, they usually match Harvey against whoever they see as the next-strongest candidate.

"My perception of that race is that it's between Perry and Tom Scott," the pastor of the 34th Street Church of God, says Tampa journalist-turned-political consultant Wayne Garcia.

"Perry's very strong, as his fund-raising reports show," said Garcia, who is not working with any candidate in the race. "Tom Scott's got a good organization, too. He should do well with endorsements and he doesn't come with Perry's baggage."

But even a good organization and that baggage _ a controversial trial and acquittal on embezzlement charges _ may not be "enough to overcome Perry," Garcia said.

In the Florida Sentinel Bulletin, a black-oriented semiweekly newspaper in Tampa, columnist Rudolph Harris wrote this month that "many local black voters will be torn apart" by their loyalties to the fathers of Harvey and George W. Wilds.

Perry Harvey Sr. was a pioneering union organizer and civil rights leader. Jettie B. Wilds Sr. was patriarch to a family of 12, some who went into education or community service.

"The Wilds family, like the Harveys, certainly were not short on public servants in this community," Harris said.

"I think I can make a contribution'

For now, Harvey has built a fund-raising lead as large as the wall-sized green-and-white campaign banners he has hanging from buildings around Tampa.

The latest round of campaign fund-raising reports show that Harvey has raised $40,867 _ $14,000 more than the combined total of contributions to all other candidates in the race.

Harvey, president of the local longshoreman's union, has gotten about one-fourth of his campaign contributions from longshoremen and stevedoring organizations in Tampa, Jacksonville, Savannah, Chicago, New Jersey, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New York and South Carolina.

Harvey, 65, has also picked up some big-name support from former Commissioner Rubin Padgett and Frank Kimbell, the widower of Sylvia Kimbell, who died in 1994.

In a "Dear Neighbor" letter sent last month, Padgett and Kimbell join anti-tax activist Ralph Hughes and former Tampa General Hospital board member Fred Kanter in urging voters to support Harvey.

Harvey said he's running because he's "the most experienced person out there."

"I think I can make a contribution, basically because I have served before," he said. "I firmly believe that government should provide employment and economic opportunity. I understand that 20 percent of the people in this community are under the poverty level. Government should bring jobs, specifically through development."

Harvey pointed to Mayor Dick Greco's work to attract corporate relocations to Tampa as a model of what he hopes the County Commission could achieve in District 3.

At the same time, he said he would remain attuned to the problems that most plague middle-class and poor constituents.

"When I was on City Council, I found that the greatest complaint people had was code enforcement and crime," he said.

Harvey's 12 years on the City Council were interrupted in 1991 when he and another man were indicted on charges of stealing $225,000 from the union Harvey runs. The charges followed a series of Times stories reporting that Harvey prospered while union members suffered.

A jury acquitted Harvey on all charges, and he returned to the council five months later.

For years afterward, Harvey rarely spoke to reporters, especially those from the Times. Last week, he said he's still bitter, but said campaign advisers tell him that he needs to talk to the media.

"I feel terrible about some of the things that happened to me," he said. "All my life, all I ever wanted to do was try to help people. I was innocent. . . . I think the basis of my indictment was what the Times printed."

Harvey notes that when he was suspended from office, eight people ran for his seat, but while he was there, he ran for his third term unopposed.

That, he said, says something about how satisfied his constituents were with his service.

"There has to be a better way'

First-time candidate Betty Reed, 55, says she decided to run because of her experience trying to get local officials to pay attention to neighborhood concerns.

"I just thought there has to be a better way," said Reed, who works as director of the career services department at Tampa Technical Institute.

For 28 years, Reed has lived in the Lucydell neighborhood near Robles Elementary School, and she tells war stories of what it takes to get absentee landlords or careless homeless to care for their property.

"I don't think it should take two or three years to get someone to abide by the code enforcement laws," she said.

A past president of the Lucydell Civic Organization, Reed's focus on neighborhoods includes a desire to prevent drug rehabilitation centers and halfway houses from being concentrated in only certain areas.

"They should all not be lumped in one area of the city," she said. "I think they're a necessity, but I think they should be spread out through the community."

So far, Reed has raised $5,028 for her campaign. Unlike Wilson, who has been criticized for holding two public sector jobs at once, Reed says she would quit her job within six months of being elected.

"I think the only way you can give it your full-time attention is to do that," she said.

"Hope and economic development'

To the Rev. Thomas Scott, "Hillsborough County is primed for new growth," and he's the candidate who can guide that development most productively.

Scott, 42, arrived in Hillsborough in 1980 to take over a church that had 50 members, an $18,000 budget and a 67-year-old building with a tin roof.

Since then, the 34th Street Church of God's membership has grown tenfold, its budget has increased by a factor of 50 and it has moved into a $1-million building.

"I think we need to have a commissioner who understands the whole idea of hope and economic development," he said.

Scott, whose campaign has raised $8,658, lost a 1992 School Board race to Doris Ross Reddick.

Scott says economic development is a key issue in his race. He said he would try to tout development incentives "that are already in place that perhaps businesses are not aware of."

For example, he said, as a federally designated Enterprise Zone, parts of District 3 offer tax rebates for companies that bring new employees into the area and impact fee rebates for new construction.

Scott also advocates trying to serve existing small businesses. In recent months, he has been impressed with Mayor Greco's program of cutting the time it takes to get a building permit in the city of Tampa.

"I understand it takes about six months to get a permit" in the county, he said. "We need to look at that. Time is money. We need to make sure that county government is user-friendly."

As the pastor of a church with a school of 200 pupils, Scott said he also knows the importance of programs that benefit children. He points with pride to the establishment of a local "hot spot" program in which residents can alert authorities anonymously to drug-dealing and other trouble.

"When you look at me," he said, "I'm going to be the best qualified candidate that is going to be in touch."

"A feeling for the district'

As the owner of a security company, a private investigation agency and a rehabilitation consulting firm, Bennie Small Jr. said he knows how issues such as crime and economic development touch District 3.

"I have a feeling for the district itself," says Small, who plans to start a family mediation practice soon. "What made me choose to run is that I've been doing this sort of service organization work."

Small, 52, says health care, crime and fostering economic development by providing tax incentives must be high priorities in a district with pockets of poverty and low wages.

Small also advocates trying to "refocus" county officials' attention on problems periodically.

"I think every three or four years county governments need to do that," he said.

"You can do this by sending out surveys to departments and department heads" to inquire about ways to improve services and streamline government operations, he said.

An unsuccessful candidate in last year's race to succeed Harvey on the Tampa City Council, Small so far has loaned his campaign about $3,000.

With so many candidates looking for contributions, he said it's been more efficient for him to provide the initial financing for his campaign himself. By the end of the campaign, he might put another $10,000 of his own money into the race.

"We have a whole lot more people'

Considering George W. Wilds' career, the theme of his candidacy comes as no surprise.

"My main issue is juvenile crime," said Wilds, 55, who has spent 30 years teaching and coaching in Hillsborough County schools, the last 16 of them at King High.

Growing up in West Tampa, Wilds said he and his friends "played football and basketball. To these kids, sports are stealing cars."

As an alternative, Wilds recommends keeping parks and recreation programs open at night to "provide other things that they can do." In doing so, county officials should also take steps to keep drug-dealers and other troublemakers away from good kids at play.

A first-time candidate, Wilds has so far raised $7,117, but he counts his network of family and friends as a more valuable resource. Wilds notes proudly that he was the first candidate in the county to gather the signatures he needed to have his name placed on the ballot by petition.

"We don't have the finances that one of the candidates would have, but we have a whole lot more people coming through," he said.

Wilds also said the county has "not done enough to provide better transportation and better ways to get around."

"Now our plans are basically for asphalt and concrete, but we can't put asphalt and concrete everywhere," he said. He advocates improving Hillsborough's public bus system and looking into rail service.

"It's expensive," he says, "and a lot of people aren't ready for it, but we need something."

"I'll do my homework'

After seven years fighting noise from the neighboring Florida State Fairground, Barbara Merritt said she understands the importance of conserving neighborhoods and the complexities of government.

"There were years when we were up at Tallahassee more than we were down at the County Commission," said Merritt, a 44-year-old resident of the Pardue Shores subdivision. "I know how to work through government, both at the local as well as the state level."

Merritt changed her party registration from Democrat back to Republican in March, but she said the switch reflects a lifetime of conservative views, not a calculation arising out of a decision to run for office.

Still, as the lone Republican in the race, she will face the winner of the Democratic primary.

Although she has not run for office before, Merritt is no newcomer to politics or government.

Besides working on myriad campaigns, she has been active on two county Charter Review boards, served as a voter registrar and coordinated her neighborhood crime watch. Merritt, who believes in clean air and mass transit so strongly that she does not drive, also has monitored the quality of the county's bus service as a member of HARTline's consumer advisory board.

Merritt said her issues will be protecting and revitalizing neighborhoods, making the county's tax base more stable and working to find a middle ground in issues.

And Merritt, who is white, said running for a traditionally black seat in a predominantly Democratic district will not change her approach to issues or people.

"Whether I was a Democrat or Republican or Libertarian or whatever, it's not going to change the way I feel about people or what I'm going to do," she said. "I work at the issue and the problem and not who somebody is."

_ Times staff writer Shelby Oppel contributed to this report.