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  1. Florida Politics

William March: Sheriff Gee denies his resignation was timed to help GOP

Published May 26, 2017

Sheriff David Gee is denying through spokesmen that he planned his 2016 re-election and subsequent resignation to help Republicans hold the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. But Democrats say it seems obvious he did.

They say they're looking for a candidate to run for sheriff in 2018 against Gee's successor, but don't have any names yet. Two subjects of speculation, former Tampa police Chief Jane Castor and former county Commissioner Kevin Beckner, say they won't be candidates.

Gee announced last week he'll leave office in September, less than a year after winning his fourth term, citing family reasons.

The timing has political effects.

It gives Gov. Rick Scott a chance to appoint a successor who will then serve more than a year before running in the special election to replace Gee, which will be on the 2018 general election ballot.

It also means that appointee's first election battle will occur in a non-presidential year when Hillsborough County is more likely to lean Republican than in a presidential year.

Gee's term would normally end in 2020 when, presumably, Donald Trump would be running for re-election.

"Incumbency is a big advantage," said county Democratic Party executive director Mark Hanissee. "The optics, the appearance, is that (Gee) was trying to give his appointed successor a period of time to build up that advantage," and then to run in an off-year.

Democrats now hold four of the six county constitutional offices, and Republican tax collector Doug Belden has said he won't seek re-election in 2020.

HCSO spokesmen said Gee won't do interviews on the subject until later. But public information officer Cpl. Larry McKinnon, who has talked to him, described the sheriff's feelings.

"There was no hidden motive. There was no plan," McKinnon said. "He just wants to go and enjoy life."

Gee, 58, "has three beautiful granddaughters and wants to spend time with them," McKinnon said.

Asked why Gee would have sought re-election in November, only to announce in May that he'll leave office in September, McKinnon said, "He just woke up one morning and decided it was time to go."

Castor hinted at the effect of Gee's move in saying she's not interested in running. She noted that the Sheriff's Office is a "well-respected law enforcement organization" with a history "that includes effective succession planning."

Speculation on Gee's successor centers on HCSO Col. Chad Chronister, who has a significant record of political donations, mostly to Republicans. He didn't return a message left with McKinnon for comment on whether he'll run in 2018 if Scott appoints him.

Maybe, but not just yet

Jane Castor also said no, as did Tampa City Council member Mike Suarez, to the rumor circulating that both will announce their 2019 campaigns for Tampa mayor next week.

But former state Sen. Arthenia Joyner said "never say never" about those suggesting she run for a county commission seat.

Rouson takes heat over exemption vote

State Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, is taking heat from area public officials — including some who gave him crucial support in his 2016 election — for switching his stance on the proposed constitutional amendment to increase the homestead tax exemption.

The increase from $50,000 to $75,000 was a top priority for legislative Republicans including Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes. But local government officials say it would force layoffs, service cuts or property tax rate increases, and most Democrats opposed it.

In late April, Rouson told the Times' Steve Bousquet he opposed the measure as "devastating" to this area, potentially forcing cuts in services including police and fire protection. He repeated that on April 28, saying his position wouldn't change.

But on May 1, Rouson voted for the measure, which passed easily and will go on the 2018 ballot. Six of 15 Senate Democrats and 11 of 41 House Democrats voted for it, along with nearly all Republicans.

"I evolved, like people do when they receive information over a period of time," Rouson said.

He said changing the bill to exempt "fiscally constrained counties" swayed him, and he decided, "The good policy is giving voters the choice. We created the opportunity for voters to weigh the facts and decide for themselves."

He denied that GOP leaders offered him any incentive for his vote.

Some Democrats charge that the measure is intended as a "turnout driver" to help bring Republicans to the polls in 2018.

It would exempt homestead property values between $100,000 and $125,000. Critics say that would be little help in economically disadvantaged, minority communities, a substantial part of Rouson's Pinellas-Hillsborough district, and that those communities would be most hurt by any resulting service cuts.

Asked about that, Rouson said the question "presumes it's going to pass. All these things you're asking me are questions for voters to consider." He said he's "still listening" in deciding whether he'll vote for or against it.

Rouson narrowly won the 2016 Democratic primary for his Senate seat over Ed Narain of Tampa, with the help of nearly unanimous endorsements from elected Pinellas Democrats.

"He's been a good friend. I may get back to considering him a good friend, but on this issue I feel he has really betrayed local government," said Pinellas Commissioner Janet Long, one of the endorsers.

She called Rouson's arguments "pure and unadulterated hogwash," and said it "does not do one damn thing for the poor and the needy … But it's the poor and needy who will feel the first effects of the cuts we have to make."

Another supporter, Mayor Rick Kriseman, was more circumspect, saying he was "disappointed in the vote" and "very concerned" about the effect, but adding, "I know he's always felt strongly about supporting the people's right to decide."

Contact William March at wemarch@gmail.com

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