Despite being heavily outspent, GOP challenger Rob Turner parlayed bad news about Property Appraiser Ron Alderman into a narrow lead over the incumbent Tuesday night.
"I'm thrilled," Turner said from a cramped Holiday Inn suite in downtown Tampa as supporters wearing yellow shirts emblazoned with "Rob will do the job" milled about.
"I've always been the underdog," Turner said. "I'm encouraged about Hillsborough voters who want a positive change,"
A nervous Alderman twirled his watch and ignored well-wishers as he watched election results on a big-screen TV at his West Shore headquarters. The mood grew somber when Turner moved ahead by about 2 percentage points late Tuesday.
Gloria Pineda, one of Alderman's highest department heads, mumbled, "I'm gonna die."
"The reason the race is so close is that I have been running against the media, not against a person," Alderman said in an interview on WFTS-Ch. 28.
Alderman's general counsel, Steve Anderson, called the election a race "against the St. Petersburg Times," a reference to a series of investigative stories about the property appraiser.
A former bank executive and Republican who moved to Tampa five years ago, Turner, 45, campaigned against Alderman by publicizing embarrassing headlines aimed at Alderman's office. He offered himself as an alternative to the "favoritism, mismanagement and bumbling" he said had marked Alderman's tenure.
Alderman, 45, a Plant City Democrat, fought back with big money, persistent questioning of Turner's background and a recitation of his reforms.
Alderman was the leading spender among candidates for countywide office. With more than $188,837 poured into media advertising and hundreds of red, white and blue signs, Alderman outspent Turner by 6-to-1.
Alderman tried to raise doubts about Turner's private business background, referring to him as "the phantom candidate."
Alderman tried to emphasize the technology he'd brought to the office, such as electronic mapping and an Internet web site that contains the county's tax roll.
But for every innovation, Turner found a new headline that suggested Alderman was inept and parochial as an administrator. Recent news stories _ ones Anderson called "nightmares" _ showed Alderman handing out summer jobs to employees' relatives, hiring a top aide who used phony credentials, paying some of the highest legal bills in Florida and supervising a staff that apparently violated ethics laws by obtaining a secret list of state audit numbers.
Alderman was an improbable winner in 1988, in his only other campaign for elected office, when he capitalized on taxpayer discontent about increased assessments to beat his old boss, Alton "Bud" Parker.
Alderman was re-elected without opposition in 1992 but had little time to celebrate. First, WFLA-Ch. 8 broadcast videotape of Alderman bar-hopping during business hours.
Then a Times news story linked him to reputed mobster Joe DiGerlando, a big contributor who got tax breaks because of an illegal assessment method used by Alderman's office.
A state investigation ensued, turning the property appraiser's office inside-out for more than a year. Alderman was finally cleared of all wrongdoing, but his office was criticized for failing to assess 30,000 properties, for shoddy record-keeping and using the assessment method that benefited DiGerlando and other Alderman associates.
During the investigation, Alderman swore off booze, retained politically savvy attorney Steve Anderson to keep him out of trouble, hired a college professor to help restructure his office, and embarked on an era of personal and professional reform.
But the close race Tuesday suggested some of those troubles hadn't faded from public memory.
_ Times correspondent Amy Herdy contributed to this story.