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Sleepy race could rouse interest by election

So far, this fall's Pinellas County Commission races are sounding sleepy: four incumbents.

One challenger.

But that could change. Gossip in political circles is mostly focused on one race _ the seat now held by Commissioner John Morroni. Morroni already faces Democrat Dave Buby, a retired doctor whom he defeated in 2000. Many politicos speculate Morroni will draw other challengers as well.

Everyone from Seminole Mayor Dottie Reeder and former Redington Beach Mayor Ramona Updegraff to Pinellas Park Commissioners Ed Taylor and Rick Butler have been mentioned as potential candidates.

"I definitely think John is in trouble and will have an opponent" in addition to Buby, said political consultant Mary Repper.

But while some politicians have complained about Morroni's performance, most are not willing to run. Only Updegraff said she's still considering the race.

Other politicos said Morroni is doing a good job and would be tough to beat.

"I don't think somebody from our party will do it," said Paul Bedinghaus, chairman of the county GOP. "If they did, I don't think they would be successful. . . . John is not only a strong politician, but he enjoys public service and is excellent at staying in touch with his constituents."

Of the other three commissioners up for re-election, most political observers couldn't name anyone even thinking about challenging Commissioners Barbara Sheen Todd or Susan Latvala.

Todd holds a countywide seat, is running for a two-year term and will leave the office because of term limits. So potential opponents could wait two years and run for her seat. Running against Latvala, a former School Board member married to state Sen. Jack Latvala, would be like "running into a buzz saw," said Clearwater lawyer Ed Armstrong.

It's possible that Commissioner Calvin Harris could have an opponent. Largo Commissioner Marty Shelby said he "hasn't ruled it out," but isn't sure that now is the right time to run.

But several people said that Harris, although he's one of just two Democrats on the seven-member board, is in a strong position. His populist, anti-tax attitude plays well with conservatives, and he has the support of many Republicans.

"Calvin is so bright, and he has such a gentle, easy way about him _ that's how he leads," said Taylor, a Republican. "He's done an outstanding job."

Harris holds a countywide seat, so a challenger would need more name recognition and campaign cash to defeat him. Harris said he has raised about $30,000 so far and plans to raise $125,000.

Morroni's seat is District 6, an L-shaped district that runs from northern St. Petersburg through Pinellas Park and on to the south beaches.

Pinellas Park's Taylor and Butler said Morroni has slighted their city, isn't up to speed on some issues and doesn't respond to their complaints. Updegraff made similar complaints about Morroni's representation of the beach communities.

"I think he's overwhelmed by the job," Taylor said.

Taylor said the city couldn't get Morroni to get the county to help with drainage problems on Park Boulevard or to help when the ditch in a man's back yard collapsed. At one meeting, Morroni presented outdated information about a proposed water treatment plant.

And in January, Butler confronted Morroni and Commissioner Karen Seel with a list of issues he was angry at the county about and said that Morroni "just doesn't get it."

But Morroni said Friday that those complaints are isolated and come from people with axes to grind. Updegraff ran against him and lost two years ago, while the Pinellas Park officials have had longstanding disputes with others in county government. Morroni said the water meeting came just a few months after he was elected, while he was still learning county issues. And he pointed out that county staffers said the collapsing ditch and the Park Boulevard drainage were city responsibilities, not county ones.

"It's hard to please everybody no matter what public service position you're in," Morroni said. "I've been in this a long time. I know when people are politicking and when they're serious" with such complaints.

Both Butler and Taylor ruled out running against Morroni, as did Reeder and Lealman community activist Ray Neri. Redington Shores Mayor J.J. Beyrouti was out of town, but is said to have considered running and decided against it.

Repper said she has been approached by a few other people who might run, but she wouldn't identify them.

Candidates have until July to decide. Repper said that it's still early in the political season, and there's plenty of time for someone to begin campaigning. Taylor argued it's too late to raise enough cash unless the candidate already is well-known.