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Election for Hillsborough tax collector resurfaces old School Board alliances

April Griffin enjoys support from former board allies who ousted superintendent Mary Ellen Elia. Opponent Nancy Millan has the backing of many prominent Democrats.

April Griffin, one of two candidates in the Democratic primary for Hillsborough County Tax Collector, probably was previously best known as one of four members of that board who opposed and fired former superintendent Mary Ellen Elia in 2016 and voted to replace her with Jeff Eakins.

Now, the other three members of that group — board member Cindy Stuart and former board members Sally Harris and Susan Valdes (now a state representative) — are endorsing Griffin in the primary against Nancy Millan.

So is Eakins, in a rare case of a high-level government employee taking sides in a local partisan political race.

Meanwhile, a number of other prominent local government officials, including former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, are backing Millan. Elia was popular among local political and business leaders, and Buckhorn famously called the anti-Elia foursome “mean girls.”

Later it turned out that Elia had left the school district in severe financial straits.

Besides Buckhorn, Millan has announced endorsements from other local Democratic big names – Hillsborough Clerk of Court Pat Frank, county Commissioner Les Miller, Tampa City Council members Charlie Miranda and Joe Citro, state Sen. Janet Cruz, prominent donors Alex Sink and Betty Castor and former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, along with outgoing Tax Collector Doug Belden.

Besides her former board colleagues and Eakins, Griffin endorsers include board member Karen Perez, Commissioner Pat Kemp, council members Bill Carlson and John Dingfelder, former Commissioner Ed Turanchik and former council member Mike Suarez.

Endorsements wars in judicial race

Endorsements, which matter more in judicial races where candidates are non-partisan and can’t talk about issues, are flying thick and fast in the unusually competitive Group 30 circuit judge race among Danny Alvarez, Helene Daniel and Gary Dolgin.

Alvarez has announced endorsements from at least two people who will be running for re-election in 2020, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister and state Rep. Dianne Hart.

It’s a violation of the canons governing judgeship races for a candidate to publicize backing from anyone who will be on the same ballot, to prevent the appearance of slates.

Alvarez, says he’s not violating the canons, because Hart so far is unopposed. As things stand, she won’t be on the ballot. And Chronister hasn’t yet filed. Alvarez, who works for Chronister, said he’ll take down publicity about the endorsements if their names go on the ballot.

Judicial ethics expert Phyllis Tokey of Florida International University law school said Alvarez is correct, but that there could be a concern about “the appearance of impropriety,” which she said the canons also forbid.

Meanwhile, prominent restaurateur and philanthropist Richard Gonzmart endorsed both Dolgin and Daniel. That may not be surprising with the large number of judicial races on the 2020 ballot and the welter of candidates. Gonzmart said he considers the two candidates “qualified and worthy” and stands behind his backing of both.

Other endorsers in the race:

  • Alvarez: former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the county and city firefighters unions, Tampa City council members Luis Viera and Charlie Miranda.
  • Daniel: Clif Curry, Chris Ligori, Orlando lawyer John Morgan.
  • Dolgin: Prominent Democrats such as Janet Cruz, Betty Castor and Alex Sink, and Republicans Mark Sharpe and Rose Ferlita.

Dems make bank off Mueller report

The Hillsborough County Democratic Party says it made more than $14,000 last weekend from showings of “The Investigation,” a dramatization written by journalist Robert Schenkkan of the Robert Mueller report .

The dramatic reading, consisting mainly of quotes from the report, has been a hit with Democratic audiences around the country. It’s an attempt by Schenkkan to get past what he has called obfuscation of Mueller’s finding that Trump obstructed the investigation of Russian interference and potential Trump complicity in the 2016 election.

The star was local Democratic donor Tom Scarritt as Trump, and the scene stealer was Rochelle Reback as Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

But the funniest bit of casting was Sean Shaw, who’s 6’5” and black, as former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a white, 5’5” archconservative from Alabama.

The fundraiser caps a year in which the local Democratic Party says it has raised a record $285,359. Of that, $203,796 will go to the party “victory fund” for distribution to local candidates during the 2020 election year.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this column stated incorrectly the office sought by April Griffin.

Contact William March at wemarch@gmail.com

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