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Lifelong outsiders, married couple seek election to the Hillsborough School Board

 
Alicia Toler, 34, and Randy Toler, 59, of Seffner are both running for seats on the Hillsborough County School Board. 
Alicia Toler, 34, and Randy Toler, 59, of Seffner are both running for seats on the Hillsborough County School Board. 
Published Sept. 21, 2015

BRANDON — In late 1990s Illinois, a middle-aged man befriended a 17-year-old girl while the two were working at a Pizza Hut.

The girl was a foster child. The man was a politician who worked at IBM and delivered pizza on the side.

What did they have in common?

Cynicism about government and a fascination with the sex scandal of President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.

"They actually put graphic details in the paper," said Alica Toler, recalling the days she and Randy Toler, now her husband, devoured stories about the long-running public drama in the Chicago Tribune.

Every election for the Hillsborough County School Board has its share of unusual candidates.

Bus driver "Captain Carl" Kosierowski, fired for campaigning to kids, grabbed headlines in 2012. Newcomer Sally Harris was the surprise of 2014. She had a live pig at her campaign fundraiser, defeated a much-better funded philanthropist and then cast the deciding vote to fire superintendent MaryEllen Elia.

For 2016, the Tolers — both candidates — provide a back-story like no other.

Both are up against incumbents — Carol Kurdell for him and Cindy Stuart for her. But if they lose, it won't be the first time.

• • •

Randy got involved in politics as student senator at the University of Missouri. He joined the environmentalist Green movement and says he established the U.S. Green Party.

Rivals disputed that claim over the years, some saying his time line would put the party in the United States before it even got to Germany, where it first gained notice. But Randy, 59, stands by his story and produced a stack of yellowed news clips as proof during a recent interview at the family's Seffner home.

His campaign signs are bright green and so is the blazer he wears to campaign events.

He has tried for so many offices, always unsuccessfully, he almost loses count. Governor. Member of Congress. Alderman. Mayor of Chicago and nearby Aurora.

"I talked about running for president," he said. Someone threw a pie in his face. He conversed with Polish leader Lech Walesa. "I've got tons and tons of stuff in my garage," he said. "I'm writing a book."

Much of this happened while Alicia, who was orphaned as a child, passed through more than a dozen foster homes.

"There were some good ones," said Alicia, 34. Others were not. She said she did what foster kids often do when no one listens to their complaints of abuse. "I would just act out and I get moved somewhere else because you have no choice," she said.

State workers said she was troubled. Even after she turned 18, they did not think she was ready to leave and marry Randy.

But the two were determined to be together. Explaining her attraction, Alicia said, "he's very political and knows a lot of things about government, how it's screwed up and all that. And I came from a very screwed up background, living in the government. So we kind of just meshed."

They made a video of Alicia in front of a Burger King with an American flag waving, calling herself a political prisoner. "I was fed up with what I had gone through and how they treated me there, and I wanted to do something about it," she said.

Eventually they married. Alicia did some modeling before she started having children. She ran for alderman in Aurora in 2001, the same year Randy ran for mayor. Both lost.

About 10 years ago the family moved to Florida, where Randy continued his career in the computer industry. They served on a condominium board. But otherwise they stayed out of politics until their third child, Rainer, had a bad experience in special education.

Rainer, 8, now attends a charter school for autistic children. Randy ran for School Board in 2014 against incumbent April Griffin, promising to reform exceptional-student education.

He finished sixth out of eight candidates.

• • •

As is the case with some School Board candidates, Alicia does not have a college degree. She did graduate from high school and took some online courses in Web design.

She is starting a Web design business, she said. But mostly, she has raised her children and held minimum-wage jobs.

She listens intently to what her oldest child says about life at Armwood High School, the stress of testing and hours of homework. The descriptions give her insight about Hillsborough's lagging graduation rate, she said.

And, like Randy, she's concerned about exceptional-student education.

Alluding to the budget controversy over the school district's diminishing reserve funds, she said, "I have been on a condo board. So I kind of get an idea of how reserve funds work."

When Alicia first filed to run, Randy handled the paperwork and returned her phone calls. She acknowledged she'll have to take charge of her campaign to be taken seriously.

While Stuart has filed and held a fundraiser last week, Kurdell has not said if she even plans to run. Randy already is asking questions about Kurdell's track record and poking around for gaffes by Stanley Gray, another candidate for Kurdell's seat.

When told this article would be focused on the Tolers' past, Randy shrugged and offered a quote from Richard Nixon:

"The biggest sin in politics is to be boring."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.