TAMPA — Doug Belden says he’s never been a quitter.
But after working 21 of his 66 years as Hillsborough County’s tax collector, Belden told his employees Wednesday morning he is calling a halt to his campaign for re-election in 2020.
It took a lot for him to let the job go — five major back surgeries over the last seven years, three bypasses on his left leg, and, among other ailments, a recent diagnosis of a neurological disorder known as CIDP.
The degenerative disease progressively attacks the peripheral nervous system and came on without warning. At first, he struggled to keep his balance. Then he couldn’t lift his toes, and his arms and hands began to fall asleep at the end of the day.
Belden said there is no known cure for the disease, whose full name is Chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy. If there were, he would have found it.
“The bottom line is, I thought I was getting better,” Belden said. “But I didn’t get better, and to be honest, I’m in the fourth quarter of my life.”
Now, he said, he can “hope there’s some overtime." But he didn’t want to seek another four-year term only to leave for medical reasons midway through it.
“It’s not fair to the voters because then, all of the sudden, the governor would have to appoint somebody to finish my term,” he said. “I’m not a quitter. When I start something, I finish it.”
The long-time Republican had hoped to make a 2020 campaign his swan song. He’s been elected tax collector five times in a row, beginning in 1998. It’s the only elective office he’s held after a 12-year career as a real estate developer.
He broke the mold by breaking down barriers: between the tax collector’s office and its customers, between county staff and its congressional officers, and between local governments and state legislators, said Hillsborough County Clerk of the Circuit Court Pat Frank.
“You want somebody in that job who is honest, who knows how to work with people instead of against them, and who respects employees and customers,” Frank said. “You have to have bring some humanity to the table to really do the job well.”
Without hosting any fundraisers, Belden’s campaign has managed to raise nearly $212,000 in a little more than two months. Just one week after he officially filed to run again, his campaign finance committee already boasted more than 60 volunteers.
He has collected endorsements from former Govs. Jeb Bush and Bob Martinez, former U.S. Under Secretary of Commerce Francisco Sanchez of Tampa, and all five of Tampa’s living former mayors — Sandy Freedman, Dick Greco, Pam Iorio and Bob Buckhorn.
Mayor Jane Castor, a Tampa Democrat, has also pledged her support to Belden, whom she calls a good friend.
“It’s very sad to see him step down from his campaign,” Castor said. “He has the most professional and motivated staff I’ve ever seen and the efficiency with which they provide service to the community is really nothing short of amazing.”
Running an effective, efficient office was Belden’s goal from the start, his employees say. He hasn’t necessarily made their lives any easier. He’s been known to come in to work on Christmas Eve, Fourth of July, any time he “feels bored.”
In his earlier years, Belden’s administrative staff would get recruited to help him cook hamburgers and hot dogs on a small portable grill for his employees — all 400 of them, working at seven locations across the county.
In the hallways, staff members saddled with an unexpected mission like to joke to their colleagues that they “got Doug-ed.”
But in his two decades at the helm, the office has also maintained a customer satisfaction rate of over 96 percent. Staff have received performance-based pay raises and time off. Belden has only ever fired two people and his office has never faced employee arbitration.
“I’ve been here 30 years and I can tell you I’ve seen the difference Doug has made in this office,” said Nancy Millan, a former accountant at the agency who is now Belden’s director of communications. “He sets high expectations for us, but all of his employees love him because he makes us so much better then we thought we could be.”
It’s hard for his staff to watch Belden struggle as he tries to get around without a walker. Eyes well up red with tears when they’re asked to imagine the tax collector’s office after his term ends Jan. 3, 2021.
But it’s also hard to argue with the advice Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Les Miller offered Belden as Belden weighed whether to retire at the end of his term. “You’ve only got one body, and it can only do so much," Miller told him. "You just do your best and that’s it.”
“This job was never about him, it was about helping people — that’s it," Miller said. “That’s a model we should never forget.”
Editors note: This story was updated to correct a reference to how the disease CIDP attacks the nervous system.