Once a rising political star, Democrat Kevin Beckner's future in question after bitter Hillsborough clerk's race

Kevin Beckner, once a rising Democrat star, faces the blowback of a negative campaign.
Kevin Beckner, once a rising Democrat star, faces the blowback of a negative campaign.
Published Sept. 4, 2016

TAMPA — It was always going to be tough for Kevin Beckner to make amends with Pat Frank and her allies after their divisive Democratic primary battle for Hillsborough County clerk of the Circuit Court.

But his refusal to endorse her after she handily defeated him in Tuesday's election has also rankled Democratic Party insiders. And that may jeopardize the future of one of the party's most promising local politicians.

Asked what the repercussions could be for the two-term county commissioner if Beckner withholds an endorsement, Ione Townsend, chairwoman of the Hillsborough County Democratic Party, let out a big sigh.

"If he chooses to do that it would be unfortunate," she said. "I'm hopeful that when the dust settles he will step up and do the right thing and endorse our candidate. I know Kevin very well, he's a very ethical individual, and I really do believe he will do the right thing."

And if he doesn't?

"I think that will hurt his chances of running for office again," she said.

On Tuesday night, after Frank won with 59 percent of the vote to Beckner's 41 percent, he told the Tampa Bay Times he had "love" for the 86-year-old Frank and considered her a "mentor," but "what I know about the office, and mismanagement, I cannot offer my endorsement of her."

During the campaign, Beckner questioned Frank's leadership, pointing to past problems, such as a 2011 ticket-fixing scandal that forced 11 clerk's employees to leave.

Beckner said Frank's schedule included hair appointments and other personal matters but few work meetings, and that parking and access cards into the county center showed she came late and left early.

Many of her Democratic backers bristled at the way he went after Frank, a longtime local leader. Former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman said it was "unbelievable" for him to attack her as "Part-Time Pat" just days after her daughter, Stacy Frank, died of lung cancer in June. To them, many of the attacks amounted to thinly veiled ageism against Frank, who is seeking a fourth term as clerk.

Frank will face Republican Eric Seidel, a former television reporter, in the November general election.

Ana Cruz, a top Democratic strategist in Tampa who worked on Frank's campaign but has spoken highly of Beckner in the past, said the decision to run a negative primary campaign against a popular incumbent could prove fatal to Beckner's career.

"People will forgive candidates for certain things," Cruz said. "But being disrespectful to a pioneer ... that's going to be challenging for voters to forgive. And it didn't have to be that way."

Beckner was elected to the county commission in 2008, and he quickly earned a reputation as a dedicated, thorough worker willing to take on thorny issues.

As Hillsborough's first openly gay commissioner, his victories for LGBT rights instantly raised his profile. At only 45 and with impressive fundraising skills, running for a statewide office such as chief financial officer (Beckner is a certified financial planner) wasn't out of the question.

He doesn't believe this campaign altered that trajectory.

"I have always believed that in life, whenever any door closed it just happens to be another door opens," he said on Election Day. "I always believe it is a sign from God something bigger and better for me in my future and career. I do not think this has limited or put any cap on my potential."

Others disagree.

"I believe that the way Kevin behaved in this race is sad and embarrassing for himself and our community," said Alan Clendenin, vice chairman of the state Democratic Party. "I believe that he needs to take a look in the mirror and make a concerted effort over the next couple of years to rebuild some bridges.

"It's going to be a very difficult road."

Townsend said the race highlighted a "fracture in the party," and that the wounds may heal faster for some than others.

"Old-guard Democrats would have a tougher time forgiving and forgetting, younger members of the party probably less so," she said. "It depends on how Kevin comes out of this when the dust settles. We do not want to lose him in public office because he has been a great public servant."

Beckner, who didn't respond to phone calls in recent days, may already be trying to mend fences. On Facebook, he congratulated Frank on "a spirited and hard fought victory" and sent "best wishes for continued success."

He added: "I look forward to the next chapter."

Times staff writer Howard Altman contributed to this report. Contact Steve Contorno at Follow @scontorno.