Commissioner Victor Crist positioned as swing vote to decide Go Hillsborough debate

Commissioner Victor D. Crist sits with his daughter, Sophia. He often cites his daughter’s future in transportation discussions.
Commissioner Victor D. Crist sits with his daughter, Sophia. He often cites his daughter’s future in transportation discussions.
Published Nov. 15, 2015

TAMPA — The fate of Hillsborough County's ambitious transportation initiative appears to lie in the hands of one man: Commissioner Victor Crist.

County commissioners will soon decide whether to ask voters for a half-cent sales tax increase that would raise $117 million a year for transportation projects. Six of seven commissioners have staked out positions.

Commissioners Kevin Beckner, Ken Hagan and Les Miller back the sales tax referendum as the county's best option to improve roads, highways, bridges and transit. Commissioners Al Higginbotham, Sandy Murman and Stacy White oppose it in favor of other solutions that don't need voter approval but provide less flexibility and fewer dollars.

That leaves Crist — a Republican representing primarily the north county — as the pivotal swing vote on Go Hillsborough, perhaps the most important issue facing the county. A decision could come as soon as next month.

Crist voted to advance the referendum in a Nov. 5 meeting of the Policy Leadership Group, a body of Hillsborough commissioners and the three city mayors. But he warned not to mistake it as an endorsement, placing himself squarely on the fence.

"For me, it's a lose-lose proposition," Crist said after the vote. "If I vote against it, I'm the guy who killed the plan. If I vote for it, I'm the guy who moved the bad plan forward."

Those fighting for and against the plan remain hopeful to win over Crist, a longtime local politician first elected to the County Commission in 2010 after 18 years in the state Legislature.

Former Commissioner Mark Sharpe, a Republican who leads the Tampa Innovation Alliance, was encouraged after Crist told the PLG that though his solidly red district was unlikely to vote for a tax increase, "I might just be willing to give them a chance."

"Victor is really attuned to the creative economy we're trying to build and the need for Tampa Bay to have a competitive transportation network," Sharpe said. "I have confidence in Victor."

But Sharon Calvert, a tea party leader and a vocal opponent of the tax, said too many questions remain, including the outcome of a sheriff's investigation into whether a politically connected public relations consultant helped steer a $1.35 million Go Hillsborough contract to her client, Parsons Brinckerhoff.

"He was against it in 2010. Does that mean he's going to be for it now?" said Calvert, who waged a primary challenge against Crist in 2012. "Everyone who has shown up to speak is against it. Where is all this appetite for a tax?"

This critical vote was not intended to come down to one person. After the failure of a one-cent sales tax referendum in 2010, county leaders hoped to coalesce around a collaborative solution to its transportation woes, seen by many, especially the business community, as the most pressing issue facing Hillsborough. They took nearly two years to get here.

Then White joined the commission this year on a campaign promise not to back a sales tax increase, and he hasn't budged. And Murman and Higginbotham dropped their support amid criticism of the Parsons contract and growing uneasiness over how the plan was formed and where the money was coming from.

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Throughout, Crist has remained neutral but vocal. In conversations and during commission meetings, he often goes back and forth on the merits of Go Hillsborough without committing either way. He'll question whether the county has a well-constructed plan, but in the next breath he will malign his 90-minute commute to work and the problems of doing nothing.

Crist's district, which stretches from north county to between Temple Terrace and Plant City and down to Brandon, would benefit most from sidewalk and intersection improvements, road widening and reversible express lanes, he said. They care less about funding expensive new transit options like light rail that would more directly benefit Tampa residents.

But Crist's interests have frequently extended beyond his county district. He also has strong ties to the University of South Florida, his alma mater, and has spent his career trying to jumpstart the troubled community around it, sometimes called "Suitcase City." The USF Area Community Civic Association served as his launching pad to winning a 1992 state representative race.

Now that area is poised for the kind of ambitious transformation Crist always hoped for, with plans for an "innovation district" aimed in part at attracting young, skilled workers. Crist said he recognizes millennials want options for getting around other than cars. Poor residents in that area would also benefit from an expanded bus system.

As a state senator, Crist also helped move forward a $1.2 billion commuter rail project in central Florida, with hopes it might eventually spark a movement toward mass transit statewide.

There are other clues as to how Crist might vote. At the Nov. 5 meeting, Crist criticized an alternative plan floated by Murman because it dipped into county reserves. Several days later, Crist led the charge to deny Murman, a fellow Republican, a second term as County Commission chairwoman, nominating Miller, a Democrat, over her.

The four commissioners who supported the half-cent sales tax hike at the Policy Leadership Group backed Miller, while the three commissioners against the tax voted for Murman.

The leadership vote may have signaled Crist's intentions on Go Hillsborough. It certainly demonstrated he's not afraid to buck Republican activists, who were angered to learn a GOP-controlled commission put a Democrat in charge. Then again, it cast Crist as a wild card who can shake things up at a moment's notice.

Crist said there are more personal motivations that will factor into his decision.

"I'm 58 years old. I have a 3-year-old," Crist told the Tampa Bay Times. "I want to know that when she's walking to school, she's safe. I want to know that when she's driving, she's safe. And I want to know that there's an opportunity for her to stay here to work and not leave so I'm around my grandkids.

"And that's what it's got to be about."

Contact Steve Contorno at Follow @scontorno.