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‘Transformational’ Hillsborough commission race may signal developers' declining clout

Supporters of Pat Kemp say her win against the building industry signals a change in its long-dominant influence in Hillsborough politics.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp, District 6, answers questions while campaigning for re-election outside precinct #135 at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Tampa on Election Day, Tue., Nov. 3, 2020.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp, District 6, answers questions while campaigning for re-election outside precinct #135 at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Tampa on Election Day, Tue., Nov. 3, 2020. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Nov. 14, 2020
Updated Nov. 14, 2020

An historically unprecedented $1.5 million or more appears to have been spent in the bitterly fought Hillsborough County commissioner race between Pat Kemp and Sandy Murman, most of it in large contributions to Murman from builders and developers.

Hillsborough Commissioner Sandy Murman campaigns along Bearss Avenue near the Jimmie Keel Regional Library on Tuesday, November 3, 2020.
Hillsborough Commissioner Sandy Murman campaigns along Bearss Avenue near the Jimmie Keel Regional Library on Tuesday, November 3, 2020. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

But Kemp supporters say her win against the huge spending by the industry signals a decline in its long-dominant influence in Hillsborough politics.

“I do think it’s transformational. We’re shifting from decades of developers ruling the roost,” said Kemp. “Now there’s not just one narrative. This is way overdue.”

Kemp, a Democrat, won re-election to her countywide seat over a challenge from Republican Murman, a fellow commissioner seeking to move out of her term-limited district seat.

The exact amount spent can’t be pinned down because of Florida’s lax campaign finance laws. But local political veterans say they’ve never seen anywhere near this level of spending on a commissioner’s race.

“Nothing close to that,” said former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

Ed Turanchik, a Kemp ally engaged in commission races since 1988, said it was two or three times as much as any previous race.

Turanchik also called it “probably the most historic race in the last 30 years.”

Since the mid-1990s, “The governing party in Hillsborough County has been developers and their lobbyists and consultants,” who he estimated have given up to 70 percent of all local political contributions.

In 2006, a Tampa Bay Times analysis concluded that about two-thirds of all contributions to commissioner candidates of $500 — then the legal maximum — came from the industry.

But, Turanchik said, “The populist winds are blowing. You now have a majority of the commissioners who have won on grassroots campaigns defeating lobbyist and development money. This is a huge change, a huge victory for the public interest.”

Turanchik cited wins by Kemp in 2016, Mariella Smith and Kimberly Overman in 2018, and Kemp and District 3 candidate Gwen Myers this year as defeats for the development interests.

But Jennifer Motsinger, spokeswoman for the Tampa Bay Builders Association, attributed Kemp’s win to coattails from the presidential race, not a mandate against growth, which she said carries with it increases in entertainment options, services and home prices.

Jennifer Motsinger of the Tampa Bay Builders Association.
Jennifer Motsinger of the Tampa Bay Builders Association. [ Tampa Bay Builders Association ]

Developers have said congestion results from county commissioners failing to devote enough of their annual budgets to the infrastructure needs required for growth.

With increased impact fees, Motsinger said, “The developers are paying, so let’s see where the money goes.”

Murman raised $467,637 in her campaign and $420,450 in her political committee, much of it in contributions from homebuilders and developers.

Unlike campaigns, such committees don’t have to adhere to campaign contribution limits.

Another committee run by her campaign consultant Anthony Pedicini received $275,000 in October in six contributions from some of the same local homebuilding and development companies who backed Murman. The committee then sent out several pro-Murman and anti-Kemp mailers.

One of those donors, Willy Nunn of Homes by Westbay, confirmed the Murman-Kemp race was the target of his donation. Pedicini didn’t respond to messages for comment.

The Tampa Bay Business Coalition was formed in November, starting with a contribution of $10,000 from homebuilider Willie Nunn’s Riverview-based company, Homes by WestBay.
The Tampa Bay Business Coalition was formed in November, starting with a contribution of $10,000 from homebuilider Willie Nunn’s Riverview-based company, Homes by WestBay. [ Courtesy of Willie Nunn ]

Kemp’s campaign, meanwhile, raised $309,558.

In addition, a political committee run by her campaign consultant John Fox gave $51,500 during October to the state Democratic Party, which then paid for pro-Kemp mailers.

A separate political committee led by Nunn and backed mainly by homebuilders, supported Tom Scott against Myers in the August primary as well as backing Murman. It spent $97,000 on advertising shortly before the primary, which Myers won.

Chronister spends big

As Hillsborough County grows — it’s now nearly the size of two congressional districts — campaigns for local countywide offices are becoming more expensive.

The biggest local spender in 2020 was Sheriff Chad Chronister.

George Lutich, Asher Chronister and Incumbent Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister (L) watches poll results come in showing him at 53% during his election night watch party at the Tampa Museum of Art on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020 in Tampa.
George Lutich, Asher Chronister and Incumbent Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister (L) watches poll results come in showing him at 53% during his election night watch party at the Tampa Museum of Art on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020 in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

With the help of numerous five- and six-figure contributions from his wealthy in-law family, the DeBartolos, Chronister raised $1,648,205 for his campaign and independent committee, and spent most of it — $1,422,608 by Oct. 29, according to campaign finance reports.

Chronister won with 55 percent against two lesser-known candidates.

Contact William March at wemarch@gmail.com.