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Party leaders cool to Clark's run

Former County Commissioner David "Hap" Clark sparked plenty of surprise when he filed last week to run against County Commissioner Steve Simon, a fellow Democrat.

What he so far has failed to stir is support from many Democratic party leaders. They're saying they're disappointed with Clark's decision and think his time has long passed.

Clark, 79, filed Tuesday to run, and said he felt healthy and ready to get back to his old job. Clark served as county commissioner for eight years before running a heated and unsuccessful campaign against Tax Collector Mike Olson two years ago.

Now Clark wants back on the commission but in a different district.

Democratic leaders have other ideas.

Both Clark and Simon, 50, are Democrats, and if no Republicans file before the deadline Friday, the race will be open to all voters and decided in the September primary. If a Republican does file, the candidate will face the winner of the Democratic primary in the November election.

"I think Hap is a great guy, but he really shouldn't be in the race," said Steve Van Gorden, the vice chairman of the Pasco County Democratic Executive Committee. Van Gorden stressed that he was voicing his own opinion. The party does not support one Democratic candidate against another in the primary.

Van Gorden will back Simon.

"I think Steve Simon is doing a hell of a job for the county and the party," he said. "I don't understand why (Clark) chose that way. But like I said, that's his prerogative; and it gives voters more choices, and I'm all for that."

Specifically, Van Gorden says he thinks Simon's real estate background is crucial for the water and zoning issues.

"It's very scientific. You have to be up to date on the laws. It takes a new breed of leader to take the position. I'm not sure (Clark) has the tools to do that. . . . Growth (in Clark's era) wasn't like it is now. The water issues were there before, but people turned the other cheek. Now it's very relevant. . . . Simon would be the ideal choice in my opinion as a candidate, but as for the (party) endorsing one or the other, we won't be doing that," he said.

Clark responded by saying that his eight years as commissioner gave him the expertise on growth issues.

"I'm well aware what's going on in the county," Clark said.

Another race that

left bitter feelings

Two years ago, Clark gave up his seat on the County Commission to run for tax collector against Olson, his friend of 40 years. The move came after Olson, considered to be a longtime power broker among local Democrats, refused to support Clark for commission re-election.

The campaign turned bitter. Clark and his wife supplied several former tax collector employees with the necessary forms to file complaints against Olson with the state Commission on Ethics, accusing him of emotional abuse and of running political campaigns on state time.

Olson sued Clark, asking $1-million for defamation.

Then Olson routed him at the polls by a 3-1 ratio.

Later, the ethics commission tossed out the complaints as "legally insufficient."

Saying his defamation suit is still active, Olson declined recently to comment about Clark for this story.

Others wasted no time.

"I like Hap. It's hard not to like Hap. He's a very nice guy. But I think from the position of being a county commissioner, I don't think that Hap can hold a candle to Simon," said Mike Cox, the former chairman of the Pasco County Democratic Party who helped Simon with his campaign four years ago against then-Commissioner Ed Collins.

"Simon spent two years sitting beside (Clark) keeping him awake at meetings."

Cox said he thinks Clark is jumping into this race because he gambled and lost the tax collector race, something he chose to do on a "vendetta." Now, Cox said, Clark is trying to get back what he thinks was rightfully his: a County Commission job.

But Cox said he and other Democratic leaders believe Clark would not have won re-election two years ago for County Commission, and they have even less confidence in him now.

"What Hap refused to understand was that there was a poll that showed that he was dead, he was going to be defeated, by anyone. His time at the County Commission had come to an end.

"I think he believed he would have won re-election; I think in his mind he is saying that he is going to reclaim what he gave up two years ago," Cox said.

But he is no match against Simon, said Cox, who plans to advise Simon in this race, too.

"He is bringing a knife to a gunfight."

Clark's response: "Everyone's got their own opinions."

John Long, a strong figure in the Democratic party and superintendent of Pasco schools, where Clark worked for two decades as a teacher and administrator, said he thinks Simon deserves a second term.

"Hap has been a friend of mine," Long said. "I can also tell you I think Steve Simon is an outstanding commissioner. He took the lead role in getting the commissioners to pass (school) impact fees."

In his race against Olson, Clark had picked up some heavy-hitting Republican support, including endorsements from state Sen. Jack Latvala, Republican Executive Committee Chairman Jeff Lucas and from Collins, Clark's former colleague on the County Commission.

In this race, Collins said he's not getting involved.

"I'm going to stay neutral," Collins said. "I'm not going to support one Democrat against the other one. I'm not as active in the scene as I used to be."

As for Republican support in general, Collins said he thinks Simon has won some friends with his fiscally conservative philosophy. But he added that party members have Republican candidates in other races to support.

"I don't think there is going to be a lot of funding by Republicans for either," Collins said.

Clark is not dissuaded, saying he's going to foot the bill himself before Friday's filing deadline.

"If I didn't think I could win, I wouldn't be spending $4,000 of my own money to qualify."

_ Saundra Amrhein covers Pasco County government. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6244, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6244. Her e-mail address is amrheinsptimes.com.

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