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FOUR SET SIGHTS ON SMITH'S OFFICE

Three Republicans and one Democrat may run for Pinellas property appraiser.

So far, Property Appraiser Jim Smith has managed to elude any professional fallout from his controversial land deal with Pinellas County.

But now, more than a year before the election, a handful of candidates are emerging to challenge the embattled political veteran for his position.

At least three Republicans and a Democrat are weighing a run against Smith, who was paid $225,000 for his Brooker Creek property, nearly four times its assessed value. The sale sparked a grand jury investigation.

The grand jury's critical August report helped drive the County Commission's firing of longtime Pinellas attorney Susan Churuti and the resignation of County Administrator Steve Spratt.

The report was unkind to Smith, too, although Smith has maintained he's without fault. In an interview Wednesday, he said the grand jury was led astray by reports in the St. Petersburg Times, which was bent on his persecution.

Smith, 67, said he's undecided on whether to run for another term. He also works as a sculptor and said he wants to spend more time on his art. But he said a campaign would give him the chance to clear his name.

If he does run, Smith said he believes he could be successful.

"I have been here a lot of years," he said, "and have done a tremendous amount of good in this office."

One thing Smith can't rely on is support from the local Republican Party leadership. Pinellas party chairman Tony DiMatteo said Wednesday he will not show blind allegiance to GOP incumbents and is out to back those with the best chance for victory in the November 2008 election.

The party's upper ranks include a prospective challenger. Tom Minkoff, a real estate lawyer and attorney for the Pinellas GOP, said he is considering a run.

"I believe we need to restore integrity to that office," said Minkoff, 57.

Also weighing a run is Republican Frank Gregoire, 55. Gregoire has been a private property appraiser for 30 years. Gregoire said Minkoff enjoys a fair amount of support from the party, a fact he's weighing in his deliberations.

Whether he jumps in or not, Gregoire said he thinks he's an appealing alternative to Smith. "I think I would be a better man for the job," he said. "I've got a reputation for honesty and integrity."

Republican Michael Guju, a 48-year-old Palm Harbor real estate lawyer who lost a bid for the School Board in 2000, also said he's interested.

Smith's highly regarded chief deputy, Pam Dubov, a Republican, also could be a contender. But the 51-year-old Dubov said she would consider the job only if her boss decides he's had enough.

Ben Friedlander, 56, is pondering a run for property appraiser as a Democrat. Friedlander has run Big Ben Realty in St. Petersburg since 1989 and is a past president of the St. Petersburg/Suncoast Association of Realtors.

"It's clear that change is coming," Friedlander said.

No contenders have formally announced a run. The final day to get on the ballot is June 20.

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