Carlton: Hillsborough Commissioner Mark Sharpe scans road beyond politics

TP_339415_WALL_Lee_16 (06/02/2011 Tampa) Hillsborough County Commissioner for district 7, Mark Sharpe. [DANIEL WALLACE, Times]
TP_339415_WALL_Lee_16 (06/02/2011 Tampa) Hillsborough County Commissioner for district 7, Mark Sharpe. [DANIEL WALLACE, Times]
Published Oct. 25, 2014

When you are a local politician — a caffeinated, in-the-thick-of-things one like Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe — a weekend trip to your South Tampa Publix can be more of a meet-and-greet. Between the deli chickens and the dairy aisle, people bend your ear on everything from mass transit to talk of a downtown medical school.

"Dad," Sharpe's teenage son asked him on a recent such trip, "you going to miss this?"

Sharpe will tell you his military career — still reflected in the buzz cut of his hair — got him used to new assignments. But the truth is, he's trying not to think about it. After a decade on the County Commission, and an evolution as a politician, term limits turn Sharpe into a private-sector citizen next month.

(Before anyone starts saying Mark Who?, it should be noted his name is in the mix whenever speculation turns to Tampa's next mayor. More on that in a minute.)

If every career is a journey, Sharpe's has had hills over which you could not see what was coming next. He was a three-time unsuccessful candidate for Congress who, a newspaper columnist said in 1996, "took his marching orders from the hard right." Newt Gingrich campaigned for him.

Today, Sharpe's that rail guy, booed by the tea party faithful for his support of badly needed transportation improvements. He voted to end the County Commission's embarrassing ban on gay pride events — something he supported years earlier. He was one of the commissioners to tout the domestic partner registry for gay and straight unmarried couples that passed at last.

Evolved? Yes and no, says the Republican Sharpe, though he does find himself getting yelled at a lot.

But he ditched the talking points. "I certainly found my voice while I was on the board," he says.

A County Commission once fractured to the point of political theater is today civil even in disagreement. The board also no longer appears to take great relish in taking shots at the city that sits within it.

Here are words you might not have heard between members of the two governments in the past: "I'm going to miss Mark," says Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. "He's had the courage to step out on some issues that caused him some problems with his own party. He's just an all-around good guy."

Sharpe, 54, leaves to be director of the Tampa Innovation Alliance, to build "an innovation district" and push to make us a destination for medical tourism. Already he talks a mile a minute on this — we're a "fabulous community" but "underperformed."

It is no surprise that as a politician, he made a second office of a Buddy Brew coffee shop. Or that once on a family hiking vacation, he hid behind a tree so he wouldn't get caught returning a work-related text message. Maybe it will be nice not to be on all the time, politics-wise.

"But not for long," he says. "I'm just constructed this way."

So about those post-Buckhorn mayoral rumors that mention him along with others, including Tampa City Council member Harry Cohen.

Depends on where the world is. "I could definitely see myself running again," says Sharpe, maybe looking over that next hill.