TAMPA — Doug Belden is a man of few hobbies. When you love your job, he says, you don't need them.
Still, after 21 years as Hillsborough County's tax collector, Belden admits that he's started to think about the books he'll read, the afternoons he'll spend with his son and the children he hopes to mentor in retirement.
But that doesn’t mean he’s ready to give up his job just yet. The 64-year-old Republican has filed to run for another four-year term as county tax collector in the 2020 elections.
Win or lose, Belden told the Tampa Bay Times that this is it, the last race of his political career.
A win would mark the sixth time citizens voted to keep Belden in the first public office he's ever held — a job he won as a middle-aged real estate developer and novice politician in 1998.
And if he finally loses? Well, Belden says he's an Irish Catholic who comes from a family of athletes and boxing champions who taught him to stay tough when the hits keep coming. If he isn’t returned to office, he’ll keep moving forward.
“When it's time for me to leave office, I want to be able to cut my ties and say ‘Okay, I've done it ... ,” Belden said. “I wanted to run for this office because I wanted to do something good for government and I'm very proud of my job, and that's why I'm running again — just one more time — because I have a lot more left to do.”
Just days after he filed for re-election on July 5, Belden could already tout a list of about 60 individuals who have volunteered to work on his campaign finance committee. A long-time Republican, Belden enters the race with endorsements from prominent politicians on both sides of the political aisle, a growing list of supporters that include Attorney General Ashley Moody, former state CFO Alex Sink, former U.S. Under Secretary of Commerce Francisco Sanchez and even Jane'e Murphy, former secretary and regional director of Florida's Democratic Party.
Belden has also been endorsed by all five of Tampa’s living former mayors: Sandy Freedman, Dick Greco, Pam Iorio, Bob Buckhorn and former governor Bob Martinez, the lone Republican on the list.
Current Mayor Jane Castor, another Tampa Democrat, has also pledged her support.
“Doug Belden has transformed that office into an efficient and customer service driven organization providing the highest level of customer service,” Castor said in a statement. “Doug is the right person to continue to successfully lead that office into the future and that is why I'm endorsing him.”
Belden has never faced much of a challenge while in office. In fact, he has only faced an opponent in two of six elections.
But whether he ran unopposed or faced off against a little-known candidate, Belden has never launched a campaign for re-election without pulling out all the stops: knocking on doors, rallying supporters and hosting community town halls, just like his grandfather taught him to do when he was 15.
It was his grandfather, south Tampa activist and oral surgeon Edward L. Flynn, who raised Belden and his three sisters. He said his grandfather taught him to rally for equal rights for Tampa's black and Latino communities.
“He took care of the poor, my whole family did,” Belden said, “because we knew what loss was like and we knew the importance of having a community to fall back on.”
He was just 17 when his father suddenly died of an aneurysm, and he was 26 when his mother died of breast cancer. Belden and his sisters have lost 10 close family members, he said, including their grandfather by the time he turned 36.
“People in my family don't live long lives, so we learned early on that your time is precious and your time is short,” Belden said. “It made us stronger.”
In more than two decades with Belden at the helm, the tax collector's office has maintained an average customer service rating of 97 percent, according to the agency. And despite building four new offices to accommodate the county's population growth, Belden said he still returned more than $270 million of unused funding to the county since 1998. This fiscal year, he expects to return about $20 million.
"I'm very blessed to have an incredible workforce of very dedicated and loyal employees who have made it possible to achieve what I set out to achieve from the beginning," Belden said. "But out of everything, I want to know that I left some sort of legacy of bipartisan, responsible government that works by pulling people together, not tearing them apart. That's what we need to strive for, now more than ever."
Contact Anastasia Dawson at email@example.com or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.