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  1. Florida Politics

Democrats facing uphill battle for Hillsborough commission seats

Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner walks into the funeral for Dottie Berger MacKinnon at St. John's Episcopal Church in Tampa on Thursday, October 17, 2013.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner walks into the funeral for Dottie Berger MacKinnon at St. John's Episcopal Church in Tampa on Thursday, October 17, 2013.
Published Jun. 22, 2014

TAMPA — The website for the Hillsborough County Democratic Party lists two strong candidates for County Commission — School Board member April Griffin and Tampa City Council member Mary Mulhern.

In addition to being experienced politicians and Democrats, Griffin and Mulhern have another thing in common: Neither is running for the County Commission anymore.

Griffin dropped out last August to run for her School Board seat again. Mulhern quit in January.

Friday marked the end of qualifying for local elections, finalizing the field of candidates vying for four open seats on the Hillsborough County Commission. And, yet again, it appears unlikely Democrats will pick up a majority on the seven-member commission, where they now hold two seats and would be lucky to pick up another.

One of the races ended Friday, as incumbent Republican Ken Hagan drew no opposition in countywide District 5.

One other race will be decided without Democrat involvement, as three Republicans and a write-in candidate are vying for eastern Hillsborough's District 4, vacated by term-limited Al Higginbotham.

Higginbotham, a Republican, instead is running in countywide District 7 and has a huge fundraising lead over his challengers.

In District 2, incumbent Republican Victor Crist has raised $46,000 to Democrat Elizabeth Belcher's $7,000.

Friday's results again prompt the question some local Democrats have asked for years: Why, in a county where Democrat voters outnumber Republican voters by about 60,000, is it a foregone conclusion Republicans control the county's governing body?

The answer, local candidates and political observers say, is partly because of a more organized and effective Republican effort on local races. But it also involves the financial heft of the real estate development community, and perhaps how the election districts are drawn.

The Hillsborough Democratic party has long struggled at the basic elements of organization for local races, like fundraising and grooming candidates.

"We're lacking on the focus of growing the local bench," said Kevin Beckner, one of two Democrats on the County Commission. "We don't have a real process in place to train and get people ready for office."

Republican political consultant Chris Ingram echoed Beckner, albeit with harsher terminology.

"At the local level, the Democratic Party could screw up a one-car funeral," Ingram said. "They're just not organized, and they don't play the game smart."

Local Democrats are less organized than Republicans, admitted Tim Heberlein, vice chair of operations for Hillsborough Democrats.

"There's a bit of catching up we can do," said Heberlein, who pointed to another reason.

"I don't want to bring gerrymandering into it, but the way the districts are drawn has something to do with it," he said.

There are two problems with that argument.

First, three of the seats on the commission — Districts 5, 6, and 7 — are elected countywide, where Democrats outnumber Republicans.

Second, registered voter statistics in the four geographic districts don't support claims of egregious gerrymandering. Democrats outnumber Republicans by small margins in western Hillsborough's District 1 and northern Hillsborough's District 2. Democrats enjoy a huge advantage in minority-heavy District 3, which includes East Tampa and the Palm River area, while Republicans have a comfortable cushion in District 4, which covers Plant City and most of eastern Hillsborough.

Mark Nash, who is running as a Democrat in countywide District 7, thinks one group of voters will matter more this year than Democrats or Republicans — the more than 180,000 Hillsborough voters with no party affiliation. Many of those would vote for a moderate, experienced Democrat, Nash said.

Ingram, the Republican political consultant, agreed.

"The Dems could have two more county commissioners on that board than they do," Ingram said. "The fact is, they rarely field a really strong candidate that's going to have moderate to conservative leaning appeal."

Ingram identified one other, smaller group of voters as more important than any other to a County Commission candidate's success — local real estate developers, who he feels are better than most groups at delivering networks of campaign contributors.

"Most of these elections are won or lost on how much money you can raise to get mail in people's mailboxes," he said. "Money dictates the winners. It just does."

Will Hobson can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or whobson@tampabay.com.

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