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  1. Florida Politics

Controversial incumbent draws two challengers in Hernando District 1 commission race

LaRocca
LaRocca
Published Aug. 11, 2016

The Republican primary election for the District 1 seat on the Hernando County Commission pits a one-term commissioner who points to his accomplishments and experience against two challengers who have not held public office, but who believe the time has come for a change in the way the county operates.

Incumbent Nick Nicholson faces salesman Michael LaRocca and air-conditioning technician Joseph Swilley Sr. in the Aug. 30 primary, with the winner taking on Democrat Jimmy Lodato in November's general election.

LaRocca, 36, has pushed to provide new incentives to retain local businesses and recruit new ones. He favors keeping property taxes low and beautifying the community to make it more attractive to potential new residents. His platform includes protecting the county's natural resources and pristine environment.

"I feel that it's my time to give back to the community that has given so much to me,'' LaRocca said. "I want to create a better environment for the residents here, an environment I grew up in. We have lost direction in this county, and I plan to help guide it back.''

LaRocca said he could not comment on the job being done by County Administrator Len Sossamon because he does not know him, and he didn't want to comment on the county's financial situation until he saw "an accurate budget.''

He points to his background in fields ranging from medical to construction sales to marketing and says he could help the county reach out and network with companies who might bring new industry and jobs to Hernando. He told the Tampa Bay Times that one of the reasons he believes he is the best suited candidate for the District 1 commission seat is his business sense and how that will help him streamline government services.

LaRocca's financial situation might raise questions about his business background. In the income tax paperwork he filed as part of his financial disclosure to run for public office, he lists an annual income in 2015 of just over $2,000, and the only asset he lists is a 2004 Nissan. When asked how he is able to survive on such a small income, he said his family, including his two brothers, have helped to support him financially as he gets on his feet and grows his sales business.

For Swilley, 57, this is his second run at the District 1 County Commission seat. Four years ago, he sought the position as an independent.

His campaign has focused on making government less costly while increasing the level of services by growing jobs. The county's biggest problem is "the lack of economic expansion,'' he said. "We work towards getting the unnecessary codes and ordinances out of the way, create a more business-friendly environment by streamlining the process it takes to open a business in Hernando County.''

Like some of the other candidates running in District 1 and District 5 commission races, Swilley favors separating the jobs of county administrator and economic development director, two hats now worn by Sossamon. He was especially incensed that there was a move to extend Sossamon's contract for another five years, but the issue was pulled earlier this week before the commission could discuss the non-binding document.

Swilley is also critical of Nicholson for failing to understand that his constituents cannot afford to pay more for government, and he does not believe the incumbent is in touch with residents. He gives as an example the recent controversy over the county announcing it would pull reclaimed water from Timber Pines, sparking a flood of protests from the community. Nicholson, he said, should have known about this beforehand.

Nicholson, 69, takes issue with Swilley's criticism regarding Timber Pines. He said he and other county leaders were not made aware that county staff had announced that the water would be cut off until the manager of the community contacted him. At that point, Nicholson said, he worked to find a solution, and he voted with the rest of the commission to ensure that the reclaimed water would remain available.

Nicholson has pushed his education, professional expertise and history of working not just on a conservative agenda, but also as a commissioner concerned about residents and county employees. While he said he is proud to be the only lifelong Republican in the race — his opponents only recently became Republicans — he also noted that he operates independently of local business leaders who are seen as part of an influential shadow government.

Four years ago, he had run on a platform that included improving management practices and simplifying the permitting process in Hernando. And he said he is proud that both of those goals were achieved, with county staffers again receiving performance evaluations that had lapsed for several years and with county permitting in many cases streamlined from weeks to days.

Across the county, Nicholson said, he has pushed for a higher quality of life, including improvements to the county's transit system and dealing with major code enforcement issues. He said he is also proud to have both commission Chairman Jim Adkins and Commissioner Wayne Dukes endorse his re-election bid.

All three candidates come with personal baggage.

In the months leading up to his election in 2012, Nicholson began seeing a stripper at a local gentleman's club. He had a sexual relationship with her that was revealed in the release of a report by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement more than three years later. Nicholson was never charged with a crime, and he has denied allegations that he paid the woman for sex. He said he never knew that when she had him drive her to the houses of friends, she was buying drugs there.

The stripper, Kimberly Losurdo, made headlines of her own when two children in her care ingested some of her crack cocaine, and she was charged with child abuse.

Nicholson has argued that he was a single man involved with a single woman. He apologized after the story became public.

When Swilley first ran for the District 1 seat in 2012, he ran as an independent, and he admitted that in his younger days he had been a wild spirit and had used drugs. A drug conviction turned up in background checks, and he did not admit the drug use until then. He also failed to reveal having several children with women other than his wife, who he married, divorced and then remarried.

During this year's campaign, he has talked about making the right choices as he grew older, including remarrying his wife and making his family life a higher priority than working a higher-paying job.

LaRocca's personal issues have played out in the headlines during his commission run and have focused on the sexual relationship he carried on with the mother of one of the wrestlers he coached at Springstead High School while the woman was still married. The woman's husband, Justin Williams, revealed the relationship to the media recently, saying LaRocca is not fit to serve in a position of public trust. Williams has since divorced his wife.

LaRocca lost his job as a coach in the wake of the revelations, but also has had other issues with his candidacy.

When he announced he was running for election, he pre-filed as a Republican. When the Times asked him when he changed his affiliation from no-party to Republican, he said there had been a mix-up and that he had become a Republican several years ago. State election records, however, did not agree, showing that he changed to Republican just three days before he pre-filed.

Despite that, when he filed his early paperwork, several top local Republican officials already had endorsed him, including state Sen. Wilton Simpson, state Rep. Jimmie T. Smith, former state Rep. Rob Schenck and School Board member Matt Foreman.

During his campaign, LaRocca also accepted a $5,000 donation from Resorts World Miami LLC, a donation $4,000 more than allowed by law. He returned the donation two weeks later, but would not respond to Times questions about the donation.

Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

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