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March column: Hillsborough long a Bush stronghold

Published Nov. 5, 2015

It's no accident that Jeb Bush chose Hillsborough County for the opening of his presidential campaign reset tour Monday.

Besides being one of the most important counties in the nation in a presidential race— Tampa Bay is the biggest media market in the nation's biggest swing state and anchor of the I-4 corridor hinge area — it's also a county that historically has loved any candidate named Bush.

Old-timers note that Bush favoritism goes back to the late Margie and Bill Kincaid, who basically founded the Hillsborough County Republican Party and backed Bushes in every election where there was one. In the 1980 primary, they even backed George H.W. Bush against Ronald Reagan, recalled long-time friend and party activist Carol Carter.

Al Higginbotham, who succeeded Margie Kincaid as chairman, has led every Bush campaign in the county since Jeb's 1994 governor's race, when Jeb won Hillsborough County while losing to Gov. Lawton Chiles.

From 1980 through 2004, any Bush on the ballot performed better in Hillsborough than statewide (except the elder Bush's 1988 landslide over Michael Dukakis). In 2000, George W. Bush won Hillsborough by 11,000 votes while tying Al Gore statewide.

Now a county commissioner, Higginbotham stepped aside this year as Eric Brown took the spot as Bush campaign county chair, but Higginbotham is still involved.

Will Hillsborough continue its Bushy ways?

There are some cracks in the edifice — east county conservatives who back Marco Rubio, and newer party activists who don't have Bush history.

"We've had a great response," said a more recent county GOP chairman, Debbie Cox-Roush, who's backing Rubio. "We've already had nearly 1,000 people sign up to volunteer."

Tamargo on stage with Bush draws questions

Another Hillsborough party chair who seems enthusiastic about Bush is the current one, Deborah Tamargo. Some Republicans questioned her appearance in the sign-waving, cheering section on the stage behind Bush at the Monday rally. Party officials traditionally remain neutral in contested primaries; it's normal for them to go to campaign events, but not as an endorser.

Tamargo dismissed the suggestion that she was violating neutrality.

"Yesterday I was at the Bush rally. Today, I was at the Ben Carson book signing where I purchased 2 books and had them signed," she said via email. "Trump is coming to Tampa Bay in a couple of weeks. I'll be there. I've been in touch with the majority of the Presidential campaigns since the early part of 2015."

Asked about the issue, Cox-Roush said only that when she was party chairman, she took care to avoid giving the impression of taking sides in GOP primaries.

Charter Review gets earful on term limits

The Pinellas County Charter Review Commission has barely begun its work, but it's already getting an earful on a longstanding, sore subject in county politics: term limits for county elected officials.

The 13-member commission, appointed largely by the county commissioners, has until next July to recommend what, if any, changes it thinks are needed to the county charter. Those changes would then go on the ballot.

Established in August, it hasn't done much work of substance so far — "mainly housekeeping," according to member Todd Pressman.

But at its last meeting, the panel heard nearly an hour of citizen comments on term limits.

County voters approved term limits in 1996, but after a long, tortuous legal battle, courts have prevented the limits from taking effect.

The comments came largely from a group that has been fighting for years to uphold the 1996 vote, some of whom went to court to do so. Some are affiliated with the county's Tea Party movement.

"We have a group of about 100 who are going to be turning up at these meetings continually," said one of the leaders, H. Patrick Wheeler.

But he charged that the commission "is absolutely stacked against those that want term limits," because most members are appointed by the county commissioners. "They have a vested interest in opposing term limits."

The commission includes one representative each from among the county commissioners, mayors, constitutional officers and legislative delegation — Commissioner Janet Long, Pinellas Park Mayor Sandra Lee Bradbury, Clerk of Court Ken Burke and Rep. Larry Ahern — and nine others appointed from among public applicants by the commissioners.

Long, a former state House member, is on record opposing term limits, saying it's a major cause of the dysfunction in the Legislature.

Appointee Todd Pressman, a political operative, said he's open-minded.

Both said it's too early to tell which way a majority on the commission might go on the question.

Long said she believes the commission ought to consider what could become another touchy political subject: non-partisan elections for county commissioners and constitutional officers.

William March can be reached at wemarch@gmail.com.