TAMPA — It was a night for looking back at the living legacy of two of Hillsborough County’s most popular politicians.
But with November’s Election Day inching nearer, the more than 200 political insiders gathered inside Ybor City’s Cuban Club Monday night found it hard to talk of anything but the future of county politics.
The collection of civil servants, elected officials, legislative influencers and more than a few campaigning candidates were brought together by the Tiger Bay Club of Tampa to honor the recipients of its fourth annual Lifetime Achievement Award — Public Defender Julianne Holt and Tax Collector Doug Belden.
The two long-time constitutional officers seized the opportunity to endorse Sheriff Chad Chronister’s bid for re-election and backed Nancy Millan, Belden’s director of communications, in her campaign to replace him as tax collector.
And even Holt, 65, could not resist parlaying the night of tributes into a public announcement of her intention to seek re-election this year. (As of Tuesday morning she had yet to file paperwork with the Supervisor of Elections office.)
A win would add another four to Holt’s 33 years as public defender, managing the largest criminal defense firm in Hillsborough County and representing approximately 65,000 cases each year.
But the promise of another campaign season to come made for a bittersweet salute to Belden, who at 65 decided to end his campaign for a sixth term as Hillsborough’s tax collector.
In his remarks to the audience, the outspoken Belden was reflective, delivering a love letter to friends, colleagues and employees who turned his ideas into actions — a farewell to his 21 years in public office.
“Unfortunately, due to multiple health issues I have experienced in recent years, I have been robbed of my quality of life and forced to slow down,” Belden told the crowd. “I have come to the realization that there is a high probability that I will no longer be able to walk without a cane or walker. I ask for no sympathy because I have learned at a very young age that there are no guarantees in life. I have given it all I have.”
In 2008, Belden led the tax collector’s office to become the first in Florida — and the first agency in Hillsborough County — to receive the Governor’s Sterling Award, and later the Governor’s Sustained Performance Excellence Award. The office was the first in the state to use technology like online registration and remote self-service kiosks to eliminate the days of standing in line at the tax collector’s office to renew motor vehicle registrations. Since he became tax collector in 1998, Belden’s office has returned more than $311 million in unused commissions and fees to the county while maintaining an average 97 percent “good” or “excellent” customer satisfaction rating.
The stalwart Republican ended his remarks with an appeal for those in office to work hand in hand with those on the opposite end of the political spectrum. Tampa’s Democratic Mayor Jane Castor delivered a heartfelt tribute to Belden. And Democratic honoree Holt, introduced by Felony Bureau Chief Rocky Brancato, also embodied the call for collaboration across the county.
“It goes to show you that even though we’re a large community, we’re a small community where there are memories and there are stories to be told,” Holt said.