TAMPA — It’s a contest between two incumbent Hillsborough County commissioners seeking the same spot and when the music stops on Nov. 3 one of them will be left without a seat.
That might be a casual observer’s view of the race between incumbent Democrat Patricia "Pat'' Kemp and Republican Commissioner Sandra L. Murman who is leaving her own District 1 seat after 10 years because of term limits.
The candidates might characterize it as unrestricted sprawl versus anti-growth.
But that has morphed into campaign catcalls of an unethical, deceitful extremist against a hypocrite beholden to special interests.
Welcome to the District 6 Hillsborough County Commission race where the sharp-edged politics are aimed at voters countywide who will select the winner of the only at-large seat commission seat on the 2020 ballot.
Kemp, 63, is finishing her first term as commissioner. A former radio news director, she switched careers to become a lawyer and served as an aide to then-County Commissioner Kathy Castor from 2003 to 2006. She lost a bid for the commission in 2014, but won the District 6 seat in 2016. Over the past four years, she has put a focus on a greater need for affordable housing, smart growth — including a hike of the county’s impact fees to reflect the cost of providing services — and more mass transit options.
Murman, 70, joined the commission in 2010 and previously served eight years as a state legislator ending in 2004. Her early career included sales and management positions for Xerox Corp. Job growth and economic development are centerpieces to her platform, but she also advocates for children, seniors and other vulnerable residents.
The campaign began in earnest during the June qualifying period when Murman announced her candidacy after earlier flirting with a possible run for a constitutional office. Since then:
• Murman criticized Kemp for scheduling a virtual fundraiser that featured an appearance by fellow Commissioner Mariella Smith. Murman said Kemp flouted Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law and was “unfit to serve our community.”
The following day Kemp’s supporters produced an invitation to a 2017 in-person fundraiser jointly benefiting Murman and then-Commissioner Victor Crist, and asked why Murman’s open-government concerns were absent then.
• A bystander recorded a video and sent it to the Tampa Bay Times showing Murman not wearing a facial covering while attending a political club meeting inside a south Tampa restaurant. Murman was shown, without a mask, talking to another woman even though she voted for the county order requiring masks inside businesses when social distancing is not possible.
"Classic Sandy Murman hypocrisy,'' Kemp said on Facebook.
• Murman’s campaign produced advertisements questioning Kemp’s ethics, alleging she exchanged texts with a lobbyist during an official meeting. Kemp received a text during a 2019 commission meeting, but there is no evidence she responded. She denied the allegation.
"They can’t attack me on my record. So now they’re just making up stuff,'' Kemp has said about Murman’s campaign tactics.
Sniping aside, both candidates said the top issue is the coronavirus pandemic and how the county will respond. But the more debated issues are growth management and economic development. In that regard, the election could be construed as a referendum on Hillsborough’s growth.
Murman’s campaign is heavily financing by home builders. She has the endorsement of — and a $200,000 contribution from — the Tampa Bay Builders Association. That group lobbied unsuccessfully earlier this year to dissuade the commission from increasing impact fees on new construction to pay for transportation, utilities and park expansions tied to growth.
Separately, a political committee chaired by Willy Nunn, president of Homes by West Bay, sent $100,000 to Murman’s own election committee.
The builders' contributions effectively paid for Murman’s political advertisements saying she made developers pay their "fair share’' of the cost of growth.
Nunn said his political activism began in the summer of 2019 after Kemp and others sitting on the Metropolitan Planning Organization voted against expanding Interstate 275 and championed the alternative of a street grid system in which the highway is removed in favor of a boulevard between I-4 and Sligh Avenue. Despite the objections of Kemp, other commissioners and nearby neighborhood residents, adding more lanes to I-275 and the I-4 interchange remain on the county’s transportation priority list.
"We’re looking for candidates who are solution-oriented with regard to transportation and other infrastructure,'' Nunn said.
Kemp’s advertising, meanwhile, includes an image of a front-end loader atop a hill of cash and the campaign says it counted more than $586,000 worth of contributions from the building industry to Murman. Kemp has the endorsement of the Greater Tampa Realtors, but it hasn’t translated into the same influx of political donations.
More notably, Murman says Kemp’s role in tying future rezonings in the fast-growing south county to available employment requirements is a job killer because it will stymie development. The builders’s association has said previously that building, development and related professions account for one-fifth of the Hillsborough County economy and it shared data from MetroStudy saying nearly 3,000 jobs are created for every 1,000 newly constructed homes.
The county policy linking south county land rezonings to employment opportunities is now subject to a legal challenge from one of Murman’s campaign contributors.
Kemp points to Murman and the commission’s decision in 2014 to wipe out a utility fee on developers and new-home buyers that was intended to reserve future water and sewer capacity. Former County Administrator Mike Merrill said in June that the maneuver likely cost the county $50 million to $60 million in lost revenue. Kemp has pegged the number at $100 million and uses it to illustrate what she calls reckless and irresponsible planning by prior commissions that has left the south county with low water pressure, congested roads and crowded classrooms.
Earlier this year, both Kemp and Murman voted to re-institute the fee and to increase waster and sewer impact fees for the first time since 2005 to help pay for $453 million worth of utility upgrades.
When it comes to the ballot, Murman has substantial name recognition from eight years in Tallahassee and 10 years as a county commissioners, but she has never before run countywide.
Four years ago, Hillsborough voters preferred Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump for president by a 41,000-vote margin. Kemp, meanwhile, collected 314,000 votes and a 63,000-vote plurality on a down ballot race.
Democrats hold a nearly 74,000-person advantage over Republican in Hillsborough County voter registration, but there are more than 273,000 voters not registered with either major party. Currently, Democrats also have a 4-3 majority on the county commission.
Early voting begins Monday.