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Repayment of Ford debt doesn't seem to be Job 1

Notes from the campaign trail. . .

HOW A BILL REMAINS A BILL: John Thibodeau says he's running for a countywide Hillsborough County Commission seat to restore fiscal accountability to government: He'll say what needs to be said.

But when the retired construction executive is talking about his own responsibility for old business-related court judgments he estimates at $17,000, he offers extenuating circumstances.

"I'm trying to be the nice guy, and I get screwed again," he said. ". . . In business, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose."

Take the $7,366 Thibodeau owes Ford Motor Credit for two vans he leased for his old apartment-framing company in 1986 and 1987. Thibodeau said he turned the vans over to two longtime employees when he dissolved his company, trusting them to keep up with the payments.

They didn't, and the vans eventually were repossessed. But Thibodeau says Ford never notified him about the lapse until it was too late, something that still irks him. That's why he won't repay the outstanding balance.

"It's the principle," Thibodeau said. "I've let people off the hook who owed me tons of money."

Two years ago, in a previous run for the commission, Thibodeau got 11,500 votes in the Democratic primary, good enough for a third-place finish.

Now he's running as a Republican, which he thinks is more in keeping with his Dixiecrat roots. As a commissioner, Thibodeau said he would be neither too stingy nor too generous when handling the county's purse strings.

"Every decision I would make would be based on what's good for the next generation," he said.

SHARPIE THINKING: It was immediately touted as the race to watch during this election cycle, but even the candidates to replace U.S. Rep. Sam Gibbons in Congress admit there hasn't been much news to report from their campaigns.

So it should have come as no surprise that a bona fide debate among the four Democrats and lone Republican would draw a crowd.

But it did.

The Business and Professional Women of Tampa booked the Grand Ballroom of the Tampa Club _ capacity 170 _ for the Aug. 1 evening debate among the candidates. By week's end, more than 200 people had responded and Tampa Club managers were scrambling to find space for the overflow crowd.

"The BPW didn't think there would be that large of a response. I did," said Dennis Smith, a Tampa Club employee who has been fielding the RSVPs.

By the way, all five candidates have agreed to attend, including the guy the BPW identified in its invitation as Mark Sharpie.

MAKING AN APPEARANCE: State Rep. Faye Culp, R-Tampa, mixed politics with entertainment Thursday night when she took 30 of her campaign workers to the Broadway production of Grease! at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. The tickets were paid for out of the Republican incumbent's campaign funds. Still, there was a price the volunteers paid to see the show: Wearing Culp's bright yellow campaign T-shirts.

JUST CLOSE YOUR EYES AND PICK ONE: Judicial elections are quirky things, more crapshoot than science. Joelle Ann Ober found that out in 1994 when she finished last in a three-way race, despite raising the most money and campaigning early and hard.

So this time, Ober is taking a different tack.

While her opponent, Ira Weinstein, announced his candidacy almost simultaneously with Don Castor's retirement announcement last year and has raised more than $50,000 so far, Ober is running a virtual non-campaign.

As of June 30, she had raised a mere $1,495 and spent only $56.

"These elections are so low profile, it's really just a name-recognition race," Ober said. So she's hoping enough voters will remember hers from 1994.

Weinstein, too, knows that even the best-run judicial campaign is really a dice roll.

He noted that Ober is a woman, her name is shorter, and appears first on the ballot _ all factors that various experts have cited as electoral elixir at one time or another.

And you wonder why voters are cynical.

_ Staff writers Marty Rosen, Paul Wilborn, Bruce Vielmetti and Larry Dougherty were on spin patrol.

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