Just don't call Commissioner Higginbotham a political animal

Published Feb. 16, 2013

Surely he was kidding. Being hyperbolic. Exaggerating for effect.

The subject before the Hillsborough County Commission that day was Bass Pro Shops, the outdoorsman's mega-mecca, and a controversial proposal to build one in the Brandon suburbs east of Tampa.

Commissioner and outdoorsman Al Higginbotham was opining that he liked the company — "a class operation," he called it — but also sounding a note of caution, given concerns expressed by constituents.

In the process, Higginbotham jokingly offered up that his own home had been modeled after a woodsy, lodgy Bass Pro store, both architecturally and because of all the, and I quote, "dead animals," Bass being known for its display of once-alive game.

So, I asked.

Sometimes people — even an exceedingly polite and unassuming Republican commissioner, one who recently cited his religious convictions in voting against a proposal to allow unmarried couples some very basic rights — turn out to be more layered than you think.

The Higginbotham home in Plant City, built by his homebuilder wife, indeed features Bass-like timber columns and rock walls, a fishing lodge look.

And also, about 60 "mounts," Higginbotham says, some mere antlers, some whole animals. This includes: birds, fish, and white-tailed deer; a turkey, a goose, and a couple of bobcats; an elk, a coyote, and also a possum that, being from New Zealand, reportedly "looks more like a badger."

Some he shot himself, some were collected post-deceased. The possum was a Christmas gift from his daughter.

No, they do not have names, though there is also in residence a live dog called Thelma Lou.

"Some people collect art," Higginbotham says. "We started collecting unusual animals."

He would probably want you to know that there is also a large collection of books and antique radios — "balance," he says. But it's hard to get past the image of that possum/badger, and his (her?) glassy eyes upon you every time you get up in the night for a drink of water. Or maybe it's just me.

He is a quieter commissioner, "not a sound-biter, probably one of the shyest people you'll ever meet," he says.

If you have seen him at meetings or out and about as a politician, you know he walks with crutches and has braces on his legs. At home he uses a wheelchair.

It was a freak hunting accident — a rotted tree that fell on him during deer skinning, he will tell you — that broke his back. This doesn't keep him from normal activities like, say, mountain climbing.

Last year, Higginbotham climbed the White Mountain Peak in California, 14,250 feet, he says, over three days. He plans on a higher one next year.

There's a layer for you.

When it comes to the Bass Pro Shops deal — and $6.25 million for road improvements to get it here — Higginbotham says his mind is not made up even if he is a fan, that he's trying to find "some justification for it, but the ask is awfully big."

At next Wednesday's commission meeting, this promises to be a hard-fought battle about bringing in business versus paying to get it here. It might get ugly.

You can only wonder: What would the possum/badger do?