In Pinellas commission race, money abounds with majority at stake

The battle between incumbent Pat Gerard and Brian Scott has smashed fundraising records and will determine the board’s partisan balance.
First-time candidate Brian Scott, left, faces incumbent Pat Gerard in a Pinellas County Commission race that has broken fundraising records and will determine which party holds the majority on the board.
First-time candidate Brian Scott, left, faces incumbent Pat Gerard in a Pinellas County Commission race that has broken fundraising records and will determine which party holds the majority on the board. [ Courtesy of Brandi Image Photography / Douglas R. Clifford | Times ]
Published Oct. 17, 2022

Back in 2014, the race for the Pinellas County Commission’s countywide District 2 seat was a down-to-the-wire drama, featuring two candidates awash in campaign money and the partisan makeup of the board hanging in the balance.

Pat Gerard, then the mayor of Largo, won, securing the first Democratic majority on the County Commission in 50 years. Gerard and her Republican opponent, then-state Rep. Ed Hooper, had combined to raise more than $440,000 in campaign contributions, a figure that Gerard recalls marking a record for a Pinellas commission race.

Eight years later, Gerard is trying to hold onto her seat in a race with pronounced echoes of 2014. She and her challenger, Escot Bus Lines president Brian Scott, have smashed that fundraising record — by October, there was already more than $600,000 tied up in this race. Scott, who called this “an insane amount of money,” said he expected the figure to top $1 million by the time polls close.

Related: Tampa Bay Times 2022 General Election Voter Guide: Local candidates on the issues

The spending suggests what’s at stake. Outside this race, the commission lineup for the next two years is already solidified. Three of the commissioners are Democrats, the other three Republicans. In the commission’s recent history, overt displays of partisanship have been rare; Gerard said she considers it “pretty well balanced.”

“They may want to be partisan, but in reality, it’s all about serving people,” said Karen Seel, a Republican who has served on the commission for two decades and who will retire this year, with State Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, moving into the seat. “I always say, at the local level it really matters to people that the roads are paved, that they can flush their toilets, they can get clean water out of their tap. This is not sexy stuff.”

But in a starkly divided political climate, with both parties putting renewed emphasis on local elections, the outcome of this race will determine the internal dynamics of the commission, its approach to budgeting and its relationships to the two dozen municipalities within the county.

Recent history suggests the commission’s Democratic majority is at risk. Commissioners Charlie Justice and Janet Long, whose elections a decade ago signaled a political sea change on the commission, narrowly won reelection campaigns in 2020. Justice prevailed by less than 1% over a political neophyte — a margin he attributed at the time to “national partisanship trickl(ing) down.”

Seel hopes the next iteration of the board can maintain the kind of collegial, bipartisan dynamic that she said she and her colleagues have cultivated in recent decades, but she also said the money tells the story.

“I think each party is trying, just like they are at the national level, to assure that they have a majority,” she said. “I’m sad to see that coming to Pinellas County, because we’ve tried not to have partisan politics affect our services.”

• • •

For as much as the Board of County Commissioners may want to see itself as essentially nonpartisan, Gerard and Scott are divided along classic political lines. It’s a well-established public servant who touts decades of experience vs. a confident newcomer who thinks he’s just the change of pace the county needs; a Democrat who sees the commission as an essential player in social services vs. a Republican who thinks it needs to be run more like a business.

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Scott, a first-time candidate, runs the charter-bus company his parents established in St. Petersburg in 1983, and he’s served on several state and national transportation industry boards. He also did a stint as a commission-appointed citizen member on the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, though he said he felt his opinions were marginalized because he wasn’t an elected official.

His transit authority experience was among the factors that pushed him to run for office — he wasn’t reappointed to another term when he was eligible in 2018 — and he said efforts to make the county’s public bus system more attractive to more people has been emblematic of what he sees as wasteful spending.

“I want Pinellas County to be an efficiently run machine,” he said.

He was also compelled, he said, by the county’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which included mask mandates and, for a time, beach closures.

“That was really the third strike for me, because I thought, well, these people are truly, completely disconnected from their constituents.”

Scott, in a recent campaign advertisement, emphasized that he’s “not a career politician” — but his opponent rebuffs that tag, too.

“I’m a career human services person who just happens to be in politics,” Gerard said.

For much of her two decades in public office, she also worked for Family Resources Inc., a Pinellas-based nonprofit focused on the welfare of runaway and homeless teens. She retired as its COO two years ago, after nearly 30 years with the nonprofit. Before that, she was a victim advocate and ran a shelter for women fleeing domestic violence.

Gerard counts affordable housing, behavioral health and improving transit for those who don’t drive cars among her top priorities. It was the sense that too many elected officials didn’t understand their own constituents’ struggles to survive that drove her into politics and has kept her there, she said. Caring for Pinellas’ citizens costs money, she argues — whether that’s in hot-button issues like housing or less glamorous venues like sewage. (Plus, she noted, this year marked the second in a row of reductions to the county’s property tax rate.)

Related: Pinellas approves $3.4B budget, with lower tax rate but higher bills for homeowners

“Frankly, I think (Scott’s) rhetoric is the tired Republican ‘tax-and-spend liberal’ nonsense,” she said. “OK, well, how would you offer these services without any money?”

The two candidates have similar amounts of campaign money behind them — counting the PACs supporting them, each had raised more than $300,000 by October. There are notable differences in how they’ve gotten there.

Gerard had about twice as many contributors as Scott, according to recent campaign filings, and her donors gave at lower average amounts. About one-fifth of Scott’s donors were businesses. Scott has also received about $40,000 more in out-of-state contributions, many of them from transportation companies and executives.

Internal polling from both campaigns shows a competitive race with a lead for Gerard — 6 points in the poll commissioned by her campaign, less than half a percent in the one commissioned by Scott’s. Tonight, the two are scheduled to meet for their first debate, as part of a candidate forum at St. Petersburg College’s Tarpon Springs campus. After a race that’s been largely defined so far by the amount of money flying around, Gerard sounded like she was looking forward to some old-fashioned politicking.

“It’s all about money,” she said. “Everything’s changing about political races.”