Carlton: Only in America: Convicted Kotvas wants to be your commissioner — again.

Published April 28 2018

You shake your head.

You think: Seriously?

Then you marvel a little at the human spirit, or maybe just the utter lack of shame.

Joe Kotvas — one of the Hillsborough County commissioners famously led from the courthouse in handcuffs in 1983 in a bribery scandal — would now like to finish his term. And he’d like your vote to do it.

Friday morning, white-haired, bespectacled and dressed in a neat charcoal suit with a dapper blue pocket square, Kotvas rode the elevator to the 16th floor of County Center to officially declare himself a candidate in the crowded countywide District 5 county commission race.

Though he has been both a Democrat and Republican, he’s running this time with no party affiliation (and thankyouthankyouthankyou you can hear party leaders saying.)

Kotvas is 75, polite, earnest — and ready for my obvious question about what voters are supposed to make of his conviction and his five years in federal prison in that shocker of a scandal. Can there really be a comeback from headlines about three elected officials selling votes for $75,000 for a favorable rezoning of a huge development called the Galleria?

Kotvas says he respects juries but juries can be misled. "Prosecutorial misconduct," he says.

"Read my book," he says. Yes, he wrote a book. It’s called Found Guilty, But...

"Yes, I’m guilty," he told the Times last year. "But I’m not guilty of the charges. I’m guilty of not testifying on my own behalf."

Oh, the tales they tell of those times: Of fellow commissioners concerned about how certain votes seemed to go certain ways and Kotvas explaining to someone that "you might think we vote strangely, but we go by the Farmer’s Almanac." Of how one commissioner would pull on his ear or, in the alternative, rub his nose to indicate which way a vote should go.

The good news is that the scandal that rocked people’s confidence in government also changed government itself.

It got us a new county charter and brought to the forefront squeaky-clean politicians like the late Jan Platt. (Later commissioners seemed intent on undoing a lot of that good, voting enthusiastically for sprawl and against basic dignities for certain citizens, but that is a history lesson for another day.)

Kotvas — a former cop and city councilman who once very nearly got elected mayor — is not making his first post-prison bid for redemption, having doggedly and unsuccessfully run for offices including the commission in 1996 and more recently the Hillsborough County school board.

"I’ve had a life of service, and of ups and downs," he says now. "I think people are ready for a candidate like me."

Apparently, someone wished us interesting times, because we are definitely living in them. Once upon a time there was a line you could not cross. Once, a person could be rendered unelectable.

Except that line keeps moving, and we have proof pretty much no one is unelectable.

Reality check here: A Kotvas comeback seems unlikely, particularly given some heavy-hitters already in that race. But it isn’t impossible.

This is America, after all, where stranger things have happened.