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William March: Weekend fundraiser shows transformation of Hillsborough Democrats

Party officials said they sold 750 tickets for $100 to $200 each for the Kennedy-King Dinner.

The Hillsborough County Democratic Party showed its transformation, and the increased importance of Democrats in local government, by holding the largest fundraising event in its history Saturday night.

Party officials said afterward they sold 750 tickets for $100 to $200 each for the Kennedy-King Dinner, plus sponsorships, with 720 attending, and grossed $135,000 with some pledges still coming in. Ione Townsend, party chairman, said it’s unusual for a party to set such records in a non-election year; in addition, the event didn’t include a big-name speaker, partly because of competition from other Democratic events in Washington and Orlando.

The event was a far cry from as little as five years ago, when the local Democrats raised a measly $25,182 during the entire 2014 election year and had trouble putting more than 200 people in a room for gala events.

Party Executive Director Mark Hanisee said the party had 75 precinct representatives when he took his position in early 2015, and now has more than 300.

“I can’t believe this,” said public defender Julianne Holt, looking over the packed banquet room in a downtown hotel, recalling the 1990s when the party typically had fewer than 50 attendees at monthly meetings and was consumed with infighting.

One key difference, said local political consultant Barry Edwards: For the first time in years, Democrats now hold a 4-3 majority on the county board of commissioners, a majority in the county’s legislative delegation and a majority of the constitutional officers, while continuing to dominate city government. Holding the reins of government boosts political fundraising as donors curry favor with decisionmakers.

Holt credited the leadership team including party Townsend and Hanisee; others credit assistance from former state chief financial officer Alex Sink and public relations executive Tom Hall, who founded a fundraising group of executives to support party operations.

One sign of the increased Democratic influence: The two Republican constitutional officers, Sheriff Chad Chronister and Tax Collector Doug Belden, were sponsors of the event. Chronister, a $5,000 “platinum sponsor” with a full-page ad in the event program, was praised by several speakers and called to the stage by Townsend for a group photo with Democratic officeholders — highly unusual for a partisan event.

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister was a $5,000 “platinum sponsor” at the local Democratic party's weekend fundraiser

Chronister said he’s not switching parties, but is disillusioned with the local Republican Party, which he said “has lost its way.” He said he considers his job non-partisan and chooses candidates to support without regard to party. Belden typically gets campaign financial support from prominent Democratic donors and supports some Democrats.

The fundraising success makes it likely the Dems will again give substantial contributions to local candidates, as they have in the last two election cycles. Among their top beneficiaries: State Attorney Andrew Warren, who got $48,000 in 2016, and county Commissioner Kimberly Overman, who got $62,000 in 2018.

Amid strife, Miller contributions questioned

Simmering tension among the Democratic Hillsborough County commissioners has boiled over in connection with a vote on a large South Hillsborough development and contributions to Commissioner Les Miller from the developer.

In August, Miller, who’s term-limited and running for clerk of court, got eight campaign contributions of the maximum $1,000 each from corporations controlled by the developer, Jeffery Hills. Hills is seeking approval for 1,047 residential units on 418 rural acres southeast of Wimauma.

The commissioners approved a rezoning for the development on a 4-3 vote Sept. 10 with Miller and the three Republicans in favor.

Commissioners Pat Kemp and Mariella Smith, who voted no along with Kimberly Overman, have since sharply criticized the decision in social media posts, saying it will add to congestion and sprawl and force up the cost of infrastructure services outside the county’s urban service area.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller, right, addresses the audience after the Board of County Commissioners Investiture Ceremony in November. To Miller's left is newly elected commissioner Mariella Smith. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times (2018)]

In addition, Kemp has reposted on her Facebook page research done by Noelle Licor, a South Hillsborough anti-sprawl citizen activist on Hills’s contributions to Miller and 2018 contributions to the Republicans -- $30,000 to Ken Hagan, $15,000 to Stacy White and $7,000 to Sandy Murman, all in contributions of $1,000 each from separate corporations.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp. [Courtesy of Pat Kemp]

Hills didn’t respond to voice mail and social media requests for comment.

In an interview, Miller denied the contributions influenced his vote.

“People who know me know I don’t play that game,” he said.

He noted a zoning master, the planning commission and the county staff approved the project, and said most of the meeting attendees favored it.

Miller said he knows Hills but not well, and that Hills made the contributions after asking him to a lunch where the two talked “mostly about football.”

But Miller also blasted Kemp and Smith for publicly criticizing fellow commissioners.

“This is something I’ve never seen before,” he said. “How are you supposed to have a working relationship with the other commissioners when they’re putting this kind of stuff on social media?”

Smith and Kemp both replied that south Hillsborough citizens are “outraged” over sprawl and congestion.

“I think it’s of paramount importance to the community to know this stuff,” Kemp said. “We’ve gotten thousands of emails pleading with us to stop this. The public is furious.”

Smith, a Ruskin resident who ran on an anti-sprawl platform, said in a Facebook post, “TRAFFIC IS ABOUT TO GET WORSE in South Hillsborough County thanks to 4 county commissioners,” but didn’t mention campaign contributions.

“I didn’t personally attack any commissioner, I just reported the votes and the issue as I see it,” she said. “I don’t see any reason to stifle that public discussion — the public needs to know who is voting which way on issues that will impact their quality of life.”

Miller has clashed occasionally in meetings with fellow Democrats, chiefly Kemp, over recent issues including the MacDill Air Force Base ferry proposal, and occasionally sided with Republicans on 4-3 votes.

Griffin to file for tax collector

Former long-time Hillsborough County School board member April Griffin says she will file next month to run for county tax collector next year.

April Griffin says she will soon file to run for Hillsborough tax collector.

Griffin, 50, served three terms in a countywide school board seat from 2006-2018. Since then she has been director of human resources for the office of Public Defender Julianne Holt. She will resign that position before filing, she said.

Griffin said she told Holt of her resignation and told Belden she intended to run against him, well before Belden announced this week that he intends to retire when his term ends in 2020.

“I have the utmost respect for Mr. Belden,” she said. “He has moved that office in a positive direction but I believe there is room for improvement.”

Contact William March at