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The top Hillsborough political stories of 2019

William March chooses his top stories of the year.

Here’s my list of the top Hillsborough County political stories of 2019:

City elections

The Bob Buckhorn mayoral era, marked by transformation of downtown into a high-rise residential and entertainment district, ended as Buckhorn was replaced by a political protégé, Mayor Jane Castor. Castor easily defeated billionaire philanthropist David Straz in a runoff after a tumultuous, seven-candidate race, suggesting voters didn’t want major changes in direction.

In November, Straz died suddenly, ending a career as one of Tampa’s leading civic activists.

Castor began her tenure with a year marked by improved relations with the City Council, including three new members — Bill Carlson, Joe Citro and Orlando Gudes — and returning former Councilman John Dingfelder.

Spano under a cloud

Investigations of campaign finance irregularities that began just after the 2018 election hovered over freshman Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover, whose district spans East Hillsborough, Lakeland and Clermont. The investigations involve proceeds of personal loans that Spano may have used illegally in his campaign.

Investigations of campaign finance irregularities that began just after the 2018 election hovered over freshman Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

The unresolved investigations by the Justice Department, Federal Election Commission and House Ethics Committee spurred talk of a possible primary challenge to Spano in 2020 and gave Democrats hope that they can flip the red-leaning district. State Rep. Adam Hattersley, who thrilled Dems in 2018 by winning a state House seat in east Hillsborough, announced he’ll leave the seat to run against Spano.

Long-time county leaders retire

Tax Collector Doug Belden, Clerk of Court Pat Frank and county commission Chairman Les Miller, among the county’s best known, most popular and longest-tenured political officeholders, all announced this year they will retire at the end of their current terms.

Tax Collector Doug Belden announced he will retire at the end of his current term. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

Meanwhile, other retirements and announcements of coming retirements further signaled a generational shift in county leadership: county Administrator Mike Merrill, school Superintendent Jeff Eakins, University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft, and politically influential attorney and civic activist Rhea Law.

White battles AFT

County Commissioner Stacy White led a legal battle to invalidate the All For Transportation 1 percent sales tax passed by voters in 2018, arguing in court that it usurped the authority of the commissioners to set the county budget. White won a partial victory with a ruling invalidating the spending plan spelled out in the referendum, but the commissioners then voted to enact the same spending plan.

County Commissioner Stacy White led a legal battle to invalidate the All For Transportation 1 percent sales tax passed by voters in 2018. [CHRIS URSO | Times]

White’s lawsuit continues, with the support of the GOP-led Florida Legislature, arguing that without the spending recipe, the referendum question was deceptive. The state Supreme Court will decide the issue next year.

A tale of two parties

The Hillsborough County Republican Party, once a potent political force, declined sharply in membership and in its reputation among local GOP donors and activists. The GOP decline follows a takeover of the local party by Donald Trump loyalists with little electioneering experience and was marked by incendiary rhetoric by its leaders on social media that put off establishment Republicans. The local Democratic Party, meanwhile, continued to grow in membership and fundraising. In 2019, Democrats set a new fundraising record of nearly $300,000, which will boost 2020 legislative and county candidates. They’re benefiting from demographic changes which have turned the county bluer and given Dems majorities of the county commissioners and legislative delegation -- donors are more eager to give to the party in power.

Grant v. Warren on felon rights

State Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, and State Attorney Andrew Warren represented opposite sides in the battle over restoring voting rights for those with felony convictions under 2018’s Amendment 4. Grant, state House Judiciary Committee chairman, says he favors rights restoration, but backed legislation requiring individuals to pay all fines, fees and restitution before voting, saying that’s what voters who approved the measure were led to understand.

Warren, meanwhile, worked to set up a system to expedite rights restoration — and the two Twitter-feuded over the issue.

Progressives make waves on county board

2019 began with the first Democratic majority on the board of county commissioners in decades, including three, newcomers Mariella Smith and Kimberly Overman and sitting Commissioner Pat Kemp, who have argued for stricter controls on growth and real estate development. But the new four-member majority, including Miller, was quickly riven with dissension, largely over those growth issues. Tension between Miller and Kemp became obvious during meetings, and Miller often joined the three Republicans to create a two-party, 4-3 majority.

Next week — top stories to watch in 2020.

Contact William March at wemarch@gmail.com.

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