Anything But Dull

Politicos to watch in 2005.

There was a time when politics was not a full-time thing. A time when, in a non-election year, everyone settled down and just did good government things.Not any more.

Today, campaigning for the next election starts the minute the last election ends and the last vote is counted (or miscounted, depending on your political persuasion). So what would normally be a dull year, 2005 actually promises quite a bit of excitement. Here's a guide to the players in what are likely to be the year's top stories:

Mark Sharpe
Most new county commissioners keep their heads down for a few years in deference to the older members of their boards and the "system." Not Mark Sharpe, who finally won public office this year as the best new face on the Hillsborough County Commission. He immediately jumped into the fray, offering Tampa as a backup site for the massive Scripps project mired in lawsuits in West Palm Beach.

"I was given a great opportunity by Palm Beach County in the sense they brought attention to the importance of bringing high tech research institutes to Florida," Sharpe said last week. "To me, 2005 is focusing on the importance of the life sciences to Hillsborough County." He won't be a bomb-thrower, nor will he be a wallflower like at least one of his Republican colleagues. "My sense is, there is room for somebody who wants to make change not just for the sake of change but who want to make changes for the better."

Frank Hibbard
Here's how far things have come in healing the political chasm in Clearwater: Frank Hibbard and two city commissioners were elected without opposition. Hibbard becomes mayor in January, and he has some big challenges in front of him as he tries to continue to build on the growth of mayoral influence started by Brian Aungst.(Full disclosure: Hibbard was a client of mine in my political consulting days.)

Hibbard, an investment officer with Morgan Stanley, is detail-oriented and low-key, a contrast to his predecessor. One Pinellas wag told me that Hibbard doesn't qualify for this list "unless you like to watch paint dry." But that opinion doesn't jibe with Hibbard's intensity and ability to bring people together. His biggest challenge will be to try to succeed where countless others have failed in securing Clearwater voters' approval to redevelop the downtown waterfront, including Coachman Park and the surrounding bluff.

Carolyn 'Carrie" Wadlinger
She cut her political teeth on two high-profile campaigns: Janet Reno's bid for Florida governor and Howard Dean's brief rise-and-fall for the presidency. After a loss of her own (for Pinellas Clerk of the Courts, to the popular Republican Ken Burke), Wadlinger has stepped forward to take on one of the most thankless tasks in the area — the chairman of the Pinellas County Democratic Party.

But here's why Wadlinger might just succeed in a job that has eaten some others alive: She understands the value of organization and local candidate support. Wadlinger told me last week that she is going to focus on re-establishing a local Democratic base. "It's clear we have the Democrats, if you look at the elections returns," with Castor beating Martinez in Pinellas and Kerry having his best showing in the I-4 corridor, Wadlinger said. "But the local level has been turned off. My goal is to get back to the precincts and reestablish that base, help the candidates. I've already started a committee and looking at candidates for 2006."

Betty Castor vs. Jim Davis
Who will be the Democratic gubernatorial candidate from Tampa in 2006? Only one can run, and only one will run. Jim Davis has been laying the groundwork for several years now to return to Florida from Congress. He likes state issues better anyway, and he has worked especially hard to build ties in South Florida toward winning a Democratic primary.

Unfortunately for Davis, it appears that Betty Castor wants to tap the political machinery and capital she created for her U.S. Senate run to go after the same job. That's understandable. Castor lost a heartbreaker and it would be crazy to think she would just pack it in.

John Grant
He blasted Community Radio Station WMNF for playing songs with naughty words before such conservative rants became de rigueur. Now Grant, a former state senator, is shaking up the Congressional picture by throwing his hat in early in a bid to win the seat being vacated by Congressman Mike Bilirakis. Grant will likely face favorite son Gus Bilirakis and possibly state Senator Victor Crist, former House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, former Senator Jack Latvala or any number of Republicans interested in this plum seat.

Kathy Castor
Hillsborough County Commissioner Kathy Castor laid so low during her first two years that friends shook their heads in disappointment and strategists wondered if she was purposely staying out of the way of her mother's unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid. But after that loss, devastating to the entire Castor family, Kathy came out swinging. First, she raises hell about freebie Bucs tickets, earning enmity from Chairman Jim Norman. Then, she weighs in on a ridiculous plan by school board officials to locate a new school in Drew Park across the street from an adult bookstore. I can't wait to see what's next.

Lesley Blackner and Ross Burnaman of Florida Hometown Democracy
West Palm Beach environmental lawyer Lesley Blackner and Tallahassee lawyer Ross Burnaman have teamed up to scare the shit out of Florida developers. In an attempt to make growth management really work, their constitutional amendment would require a voter referendum for any changes to local land-use plans. While Florida Hometown Democracy found it tougher to gather signatures than it thought, they amassed enough to force the Florida Supreme Court to review the idea. Blackner and Burnaman want it on the 2006 ballot, and while that remains a steep hill to climb, one thing is certain: If this thing ever gets in front of voters, they will approve it overwhelmingly.

Rob McKenna
He tried the election route, and failed. Then he tried the party coup route, and failed. But Rob McKenna is 'smart, committed and a fighter," as one 537 Club member who worked with him put it. McKenna may not have won the race for Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections, but having attracted so many supporters, the Duke graduate and computer systems analyst has acquired a taste for politics. He said last week that he has 'big plans" for the new year.

Frank Sanchez
There is too much potential and too much intelligence here to go wasted for too long. Although he is in the wrong party for Hillsborough's current tastes, Sanchez may find a place to serve if Jim Davis moves aside to run for governor.

Jim Norman vs. Sam Rashid
Plant City conservative strategist and mastermind Sam Rashid hasn't lost many local races. In fact, he's gained a reputation as a giant killer, taking down County Commissioner Dottie Berger and then methodically helping turn Hillsborough government into a conservative bastion. This year, it was his assistance (along with the work of the best local political consultant, Mike Corcoran) that got Brian Blair over on Bob Buckhorn.

So it's not surprising that the only major race he lost in recent memory, backing Stacey Easterling against Jim Norman, must still stick in his craw. My courthouse sources say Rashid worked the phones with a vengeance against his nemesis, trying first to deny Norman the chairmanship of the Hillsborough County Commission and then working unsuccessfully to block him from reappointment to Norman's beloved Tampa Sports Authority and its freebie Bucs football tickets. 2005 can only bring more fun in this saga.

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