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  1. Florida Politics

Three Republicans vying to replace Pinellas commissioner John Morroni

A map of District 6 for the Pinellas County Commission. The district includes Pinellas Park, Seminole, northeast St. Petersburg and the south beaches. In 2014, voters in the district elected a Republican commissioner and Democratic school board member. [Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections]
A map of District 6 for the Pinellas County Commission. The district includes Pinellas Park, Seminole, northeast St. Petersburg and the south beaches. In 2014, voters in the district elected a Republican commissioner and Democratic school board member. [Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections]
Published Jul. 4, 2017

The 2018 primary election is 14 months away, but a crowded field of Republicans has already emerged to replace longtime Pinellas County Commissioner John Morroni.

So far, the District 6 race, which generally includes Pinellas Park, Seminole, northeast St. Petersburg and the south beaches, has attracted two state lawmakers and a community activist who helped defeat a transportation sales tax in 2014.

The primary vote could settle the contest since no Democrat has sought the seat since 2006.

The announced candidates include state Reps. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, and Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, and Barb Haselden, a St. Petersburg resident who led the No Tax for Tracks campaign in 2014.

Matthew Lettelleir, communications director for the Pinellas County Republican Party, called District 6 "interesting" because voters elected a Republican commissioner and Democratic school board member, Linda Lerner, in 2014. Party officials will support each Republican candidate, he added, and stay out of the primary race.

"All three candidates are good candidates," he said.

Haselden, 65, who works in the insurance industry, said she entered the race after watching county leaders waste money trying to create programs that will raise taxes.

"I'd like to have a seat at the table to be a voice for the people," Haselden said. "The people are not being represented by those in control of the county."

She criticized the way county officials tout the November renewal of the Penny for Pinellas sales tax. Portions of the penny tax across the county have paid for bridges, libraries and recreation centers. Residents are "unhappy" that officials have used the tax to pay for "pet projects" and then complain about widespread sewer issues, Haselden said.

She said she is not concerned about challenging two state lawmakers who have the ability to raise campaign money. While Ahern and Peters have been on a ballot, Haselden said she has hordes of supporters ready to help spread her message.

"Kathleen and Larry are good people," she said. "At the county level, I am the one who knows what's going on."

Peters, 55, said she expects a tough primary contest.

"I have a very strong record to stand on," Peters said. "I'm an aggressive campaigner, but I'm not a fighter. I don't run on attacks."

The former mayor of South Pasadena and Treasure Island resident was first elected to the Florida House in 2012 and won a third term in November.

A hallmark of her platform has centered on efforts to reform the state's mental health system and expand the workforce. She has also been a leading voice in addressing address the area's failing sewers.

Peters said she has grown frustrated with the way the Florida Legislature has worked to strip power away from local governments. She cited the constitutional amendment the Legislature is putting before voters on the 2018 ballot. If passed, the legislation would add a $25,000 homestead exemption on properties valued at more than $100,000.

Local leaders across Florida believe the legislation will strip away millions from county tax rolls. Peters vowed to continue fighting in Tallahassee but said she can best serve residents from a commission seat.

"This is the stuff that frustrates me," she said about the direction of the Legislature. "These last four years have been very challenging."

Ahern, 61, filed for the commission seat in April while the Legislature was still in session.

He won reelection to the Florida House for the third time in November. Before that, he owned a swimming pool retail and maintenance business in St. Petersburg called Tyrone Discount Pool Supply for about 22 years. Ahern said his business experience helped him as lawmaker and will help make Pinellas County stronger if he wins a commission seat.

"That business experience in creating jobs, balancing budgets and making tough decisions are all part of the reasons I have been successful in the Florida House of Representatives," Ahern said in a statement. "My business experience and the skills I have learned at the state level are a perfect fit for the Pinellas County Commission."

He also said conservative principles would guide him on the commission.

"My goal is to keep their taxes low, make their government work more efficiently and protect their freedoms," Ahern said. "If elected to the County Commission, I would continue these conservative principles."

A legislative vote in May shows one contrast between Peters and Ahern.

Florida House members wanted to gut the state's "Government-in-the-Sunshine Law" in May. The law would have allowed two members of the same county commission, school board or other government panel to meet in secret and discuss the public's business.

Peters opposed the bill; Ahern supported it. The legislation ultimately failed.

In recent years, the Legislature has been a path to the commission.

Besides Morroni, commission Chair Janet Long served in the House, and commissioner Charlie Justice served in the Senate.

Morroni announced his retirement in March so other candidates could enter the contest.

The announcement came six months after Morroni, 62, received a clean bill of health after being diagnosed with a rare bone marrow disorder. He beat two earlier bouts of cancer. But his health, he said, was not the reason for retiring.

The Treasure Island Republican won the seat in 2000. His political retirement will end a career that started when he served in the Florida House of Representatives from 1992 to 2000.

Morroni said he doesn't want to look like he is picking his replacement and likely will not endorse a Republican in the primary contest.

"It's not often that you get an open seat on the County Commission," Morroni said.

Currently, Democrats hold a 4-3 majority on the commission, but the votes don't typically fall along party lines.

Party chairwoman Susan McGrath said several candidates are considering entering the 2018 race, but she doesn't know when one will reach a decision. The party, she said, is not conceding the race.

"It does have a Republican-leaning advantage," McGrath said "but the environment is changing politically."

Contact Mark Puente at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente

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