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Kevin Beckner, Pat Frank divide Hillsborough Democrats over 2016 clerk's race

Kevin Beckner says Frank approached him about running.
Kevin Beckner says Frank approached him about running.
Published May 3, 2015

TAMPA — It usually wouldn't be noteworthy for a Hillsborough County Democrat to give a shout-out to Pat Frank at a news conference. The 85-year-old county clerk and former state legislator and county commissioner is a legendary, revered figure in local politics.

But when County Commissioner Kevin Beckner spoke into a microphone at Joe Chillura Courthouse Square Park on a steamy spring morning and called Frank one of "the most influential women (who) have played a big part in forming who I am today," the surprise on Frank's face was noticeable across the field.

Beckner and Frank are not exactly on speaking terms at the moment. Beckner filed to run for Frank's job as clerk of the circuit court on April 2 — before she announced whether she would go for another term. And now Frank is adamant she's running, too.

The Democratic primary is quickly shaping up to be one of the most interesting local races in 2016. But it's also creating chasms in the party heading into an election year in which Democrats are hopeful the national presidential contest will increase turnout and their odds.

The dispute

How Beckner, the county's first openly gay commissioner and a rising Democratic star at age 44, came to challenge a local party icon is a point of contention between the two.

Beckner insists that Frank approached him about running last summer. At the time, he said, he had not considered the clerk's office as the next step for his political career. Term limits push him out of office after 2016.

"She explicitly then said she was retiring," Beckner said, adding that in the months following the two continued to meet. Frank, Beckner said, even introduced him to her staff at the clerk's office holiday party.

But Beckner said Frank changed her tune completely around February.

"She said she wasn't retiring and wasn't going to make decision until next spring," Beckner said. "And I told her that wasn't enough time to put together a campaign, and I would be very soon putting together paperwork. She said I have to do what I have to do."

Beckner officially kicked off his campaign on Wednesday with a fundraising event. Part of the impetus for announcing so early — as Beckner has done in each of his bids for office — was to start raising the money needed for a countywide campaign.

For her part, Frank said that she never approached Beckner about running for office, and at the initial meeting, "I told him I had not made up my mind, and it was too early."

Frank said she indicated to Beckner her choice successor would be Tampa City Council member Harry Cohen, who works in the clerk's office. Beckner said Cohen told him he was not planning to run. Cohen was attending to a death in the family last week and could not be reached for comment.

At a second meeting, Frank told him she was going to run but wouldn't file until she feels it's right.

"I said, 'Do whatever you have to do. This is a democracy,' " Frank said. "He filed very shortly after."

In it to win it

Some longtime local Democrats were surprised Beckner took that step. Not because of his qualifications, but if there was any doubt Frank would run, it was eliminated the moment Beckner announced.

"He obviously doesn't know Pat Frank very well," said former Tampa mayor Sandy Freedman, a Democrat and friend of Frank. "The way he's done it has really made Pat dig in even further. She's more determined that ever to continue her job."

Others believe Beckner was within his right to jump in.

"It won't be the first time there's a primary, so what's new?" said former County Commissioner Jan Platt. "If you think you're the one for the job you run regardless of the who the opposition is."

What remains to be seen is how Beckner separates himself from Frank in the 16 months leading up to the primary. The office's duties aren't readily apparent to many voters, and unless there's corruption or incompetence, the county clerk typically stays behind the scenes.

The most glaring exception to that rule, however, came in January when the state's same-sex marriage ban was tossed out. Frank ceremoniously conducted dozens of gay and lesbian weddings. As it is, Frank is well-regarded among LGBT voters, a key voting block for Beckner.

Key distinction

One obvious difference between Beckner and Frank — the 41 years of age separating them — will be tough to make into an issue. (On Frank's age, Beckner said it's not a factor and "if there's any issue on age its something only Pat or the electorate can address," while Frank said, "Kevin Beckner should be the last person who should discriminate.")

"You don't play that card, so I don't know what you can do in his race to get that edge," said former Hillsborough County Commissioner Tom Scott.

One key distinction, Beckner said, is his background as a financial planner. The clerk is considered the chief financial officer of the county, and he hopes to get that across to voters.

Hillsborough Democrats are aware they hold just two of seven county board seats, have a shallower bench and just wrapped up a difficult midterm cycle. It's painful to watch two well-liked politicians go head-to-head instead of trying to help win two different races, Freedman said.

So far no Republicans have filed to run for county clerk.

"It puts the party in a bad position, it puts many people in a bad position and it puts many different groups in a bad position," Freedman said.

But the younger voters that typically get more involved during presidential election years care less about those intraparty battles, said Cesar Hernandez, president of the Hillsborough County Young Democrats.

"I'm excited to see what's going to happen," Hernandez said. "It's like Pacquiao-Mayweather. I don't care who wins. I'm watching every round."

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com. Follow @scontorno.