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Two long shots vs. a regular winner

After 14 years in office, Jim Norman may be running his final County Commission race. But this time, is it really a race?

Republican Norman, who has never lost an election, faces Democrat Joe Redner, who has lost five, and independent Yamel Arronte, who has never run before.

If money is the lifeblood of politics, then Norman and Redner are blood banks. Arronte is anemic. She has raised $13,000. Norman has gathered $222,000 in his fifth run for the commission. Redner, who estimates his net worth at $25-million, has loaned his campaign $108,000.

Yet Redner, saddled with the notoriety of owning nude-dancing clubs, has never polled better than 35 percent of the vote. Political consultants think Redner could improve his campaign tactics but may never win anyway.

"The public opinion of Joe is so firmly cemented in the minds of average voters, there's nothing he can do to reverse that," said Democrat Bob Buckhorn, who beat Redner 75 percent to 25 percent in a 1999 City Council election.

But Redner argues that this election is different because he is running as a Democrat. Previously, Redner always ran against a Democrat, sometimes a Republican. He believes he has locked up only the independent vote.

"If I get the Democratic vote, I'm a shoo-in," Redner said.

He was the only Democrat to file in this race. Democratic leaders squirm a little about Redner's background but back his politics.

"I think we all agree that he's an excellent politician who supports everything that our local party represents," said Alvin Wolfe of Lutz, chairman of the Hillsborough Democrats' platform and issues committee.

"I wish he didn't have those negatives, but each of us has some negatives," Wolfe said. "He has so many positives on the issues, I'd like to see him elected to office."

'It makes me mad'

Redner's negatives date back 30 years, when he decided to open a nude-dancing business and the Tampa Police Department decided to close it. In 1976, Redner was arrested 30 times. According to Florida Department of Law Enforcement records, some 65 arrests yielded three convictions:

- Allowing a lewd and lascivious act in Tampa in 1978.

- Battery in St. Petersburg in 1983.

- Possessing cocaine at a Buccaneers game in 1983.

Many of the charges fizzled because courts had ruled nude dancing was a form of expression, protected by the First Amendment. Redner got his GED while behind bars on the cocaine charge.

Today, Redner acknowledges past problems with alcohol and drugs, and says he touches neither. In fact, he is a 66-year-old vegan, and works out at his own gym, Xtreme Total Health & Fitness in Old Hyde Park.

Meanwhile, all the arrests, plus countless battles over other legalities, had a consequence neither side intended: Joe Redner became intensely interested in local government.

"If you gather enough information, you're going to be p----- off about what you find out," he said. "It makes me mad, and it makes me want to fight."

Three handicaps

Arronte agrees. She's even a tad sympathetic to Redner's battles over his nightclubs. The County Commission, she said, "has spent all this time on adult ordinances, and nobody was fixing the potholes."

But the sympathy stops there. Arronte, 36, calls Redner and Norman "extremists" at opposite philosophical poles, leaving voters one middle-ground candidate - herself.

Although she's a first-time candidate, Arronte isn't new to politics or public life. As a teenager, she was Tampa's Latin American Fiesta Princess and went to Hawaii to present a key to the city to the governor there. She later joined the Army for two years of medic-related duty.

In 2001, after years of volunteerism and raising four children, Arronte received a University of South Florida degree and took up teaching. Her latest assignment: eighth-grade geography at Farnell Middle School.

She decided to run for office in May shortly after school ended, shocking her husband. At the elections office, Arronte filed for a School Board seat. But it didn't feel right. She decided to switch to County Commission.

She then made three decisions that would handicap any first-time office seeker.

She decided, "I will not ask for money."

She chose a countywide seat, with 635,000 voters. "I didn't want to tell people, 'Sorry, I'm not in your area.' ''

She filed under no party label, even though she had been the unpaid "grass roots secretary" in the 1990s for the county Republican Party. "No one party can fix the problems in a county this size," she said.

So after school each day, Arronte attends as many gatherings as she can. She taps into every e-mail group she can find, trying to convince everybody "I am a neutral, educated, caring person," she said.

'They've stopped'

The core of Norman's campaign, as it has been since 1991, is a solitary march, door to door. Norman did that full time before winning his first election to the commission in 1992. Ever since, he has carved out four hours each week, hoping to reach 100 to 150 homes per hike, regardless of how far off the next election is. He may have visited up to 150,000 homes over 15 years.

Perhaps as a result, Norman's commission work has focused steadfastly on neighborhood issues: parks, fire stations, reclaimed water. He is particularly proud of enacting county property tax exemptions for soldiers serving in combat areas.

All this while holding down a second full-time job, as a government relations consultant for the Salvation Army, which pays Norman $82,000 a year. "I travel for them," said Norman, 53. "I'm away nights."

For the last two years, Norman has chaired a County Commission with a 5-2 Republican majority. They have showcased flinty conservatism, generating feuds with the county School Board, the city of Tampa and the state's gay rights advocates. But given the mix of aggressive personalities, Norman thinks the group has been collegial.

"When I say enough's enough and stop, they've stopped," Norman said.

Both Redner and Arronte contend Norman has served developers and other business groups at the expense of taxpayers.

Unspent treasury

But will that theme unseat such an anchored incumbent?

"Anybody can be beaten with the right amount of money, the right campaign, the right message," argued Victor DiMaio, a Tampa political consultant and lobbyist who backs Democrats.

DiMaio's first recommendation: Knock on doors.

Early this month, Redner began attacking Norman with some 50 cable television ads a day, at 15 seconds apiece.

"At least I give him full credit for getting his message out there," said Gregory Wilson, a Democrat-leaning consultant from St. Petersburg. "I still don't think he's winning. I think he's making it competitive."

Norman was planning a series of mailings, a huge series judging from his unspent treasury.

More than $125,000 had sat there since last year, when Norman made his first appeal for contributions. He left time for a second money drive this year.

Then filing closed. Norman sized up his opponents and decided no more was needed.

He's looking forward to four more years, and a new challenge after that, when Victor Crist of Temple Terrace finishes his last term in the Florida Senate.

"I'm probably looking at that seat," Norman said.

Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 269-5309 or coats@sptimes.com.

AT A GLANCE

Candidates

Yamel Arronte wants to:

- Improve roads, public transportation, economic development and services for veterans, youth, minorities, vulnerable people and animals.

- Make housing and health care more affordable.

Jim Norman wants to:

- Leave the county with "the top amateur athletic programs and fields in this country."

- Build a tournament-scale sports complex that will generate profits to sustain other county recreation programs.

- Establish a hub-and-spoke bus system reaching the unincorporated suburbs.

- Keep devoting sales tax revenue to transportation.

Joe Redner wants to:

- Require developers to build new schools, and give them incentives to build affordable housing.

- Stiffen environmental protection.

- Improve bus service, create car pool lanes, and build commuter rail from the downtown to New Tampa, Citrus Park and St. Petersburg.

- Improve teamwork between Hillsborough County and Tampa.

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