Mark Sharpe spent more of his life running for elected office than serving in it, but the record he leaves on the Hillsborough County Commission lays a strong foundation for the Tampa Bay area. The question, as he is term-limited out and his successor is installed Tuesday, is whether the new commission will build on his vision or ignore it.
Sharpe emerged on the scene in the 1990s, running three times as a hard-right Republican for a Tampa congressional seat. The losses showed him the value of the political middle, which he used to win his first county race in 2004. But it also fostered a caution during his early years in office that was totally out of synch with his impatience and energy.
Sharpe made mistakes. He opposed a gay rights measure and voted against an imperfect but much-needed temporary housing plan for the homeless. His indecisiveness at times was born from an unrealistic urge to please and his own uncertainty about his political footing. But he used this as a maturing process — coming around on social issues, becoming more pragmatic and finding his voice as a leader. He has done more than any other board member in recent history to advance plans for building a modern transportation system and a more upwardly mobile economy. In a decade of service, the 54-year-old Sharpe has also helped restore public confidence in government by demonstrating his belief that elected office is a public trust.
Sharpe's transformation is a lesson. He drew support from Democrats and kept the seat in Republican hands by appealing to common sense and common values that voters especially look for in local candidates. He didn't engage in the same pettiness that moved his Republican colleagues to repeatedly deny him the board chairmanship. Sharpe reached out to city officials in Tampa and across the bay to break the urban-suburban divide and to think more regionally. He also raised the public's expectations of local government.
This is a meaningful legacy, and it challenges the new board to continue the momentum in the critical coming years. City and county officials are crafting another transportation measure for the 2016 ballot. Pinellas and Hillsborough are looking at ways to keep the Tampa Bay Rays in the region. Tampa International Airport is attracting business to the region with new overseas flights, while Tampa's seaport is becoming a major new player in developing the downtown.
No commissioner is a natural fit to pick up Sharpe's agenda. His successor, Al Higginbotham, who is making the transition from a suburban district seat, has said he will pursue more urban priorities. Sharpe will still be on the radar in his new capacity as a job development executive in the university area of north Tampa. But his departure leaves a void at the political level at the very time the region has big decisions on its plate. Which commissioner is prepared to step up?