Buby Trapped

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John Morroni and Dave Buby, who are vying for the Pinellas County Commission, are both middle-aged white guys qualified enough for the office. They're both affable and charming in that way a good neighbor would be. They're both able to tackle complex issues and sift through government bureaucracy.

But they don't grab attention.Morroni, 47, has made a name for himself as a clean, doorbell-pushing campaigner, a style that generally wins over the suburban mom-and-pop vote but makes reporters itch uncontrollably from those damn niceties. Buby, 64, is a bit more aggressive, but in that benign, aw-shucks, I'm-a-better-candidate sort of way.

"He's a follower, not a leader," Buby says of Morroni.

Morroni's biggest failing, according to Buby: He used campaign money to buy his St. Petersburg Times subscription.

Stop the presses! The scandal! The outrage!

"People have gone after me with negative stuff and I just stay on the clean road," says Morroni.

It hasn't always been easy for Morroni to stay on that road. In January, the Times reported that Morroni, a Realtor, gave Times photographer Carrie Pratt some shocking real estate advice.

"He said that black people were spread out throughout [St. Petersburg], and not in one area, so I could never tell about the neighborhood," the Times reported Pratt as saying. "He said, now in Clearwater, all of the black people were in the Greenwood neighborhood, so therefore I knew where all the crime was so I knew where not to buy."

When questioned by fellow Commissioners Ken Welch and Calvin Harris, both African-American Democrats, Morroni denied making the remark, alleging that the Times, which did not endorse Morroni in 2000, was guilty of creating news. Buby has not used the alleged comment as an issue in his campaign.

The Morroni-Buby race is significant for one reason: District 6 is the only commission seat under challenge in Pinellas. The two major parties have not positioned opponents for the seats held by Republicans Barbara Sheen Todd and Susan Latvala and Democrat Calvin Harris. (Latvala has a write-in challenger, John L. Skolte of Dunedin.)

This is the second time Morroni and Buby have faced each other for the commission seat. In 2000, Morroni went office shopping after term limits forced him to leave the Florida House of Representatives. His fundraising experience proved invaluable in the race. Morroni's campaign war chest made Buby's look like a velvet earring box.

"John had to move into this district to run," Buby says. "I lived here."

So far, this year's race has been similar to the last one. Morroni has raised $81,897, as of mid-September, compared to Buby's $16,811.

"He's got lots of money," Buby says. "But John doesn't spend his own money. He spends everyone else's." Indeed, Buby has contributed at least $5,000 to his own campaign.

But money won't be the Democrat's only problem. Buby has been unable to distinguish himself as an alternative to Morroni. A physician and former chairman of the Florida Health and Human Services Board — which provided oversight to the Department of Children and Families but was abolished by the Legislature in 2000 — Buby has centered his campaign on one issue: health care.

He would like the county to charge itself with ensuring that quality health care is available to all residents. His campaign slogan sums up the stance: "Let's Put a Physician on the Commission."

On every other issue, Morroni and Buby seem to agree. They both support the feasibility study of a countywide light-rail system and the possibility of rolling the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, the bus system created by Tallahassee under a special taxing district, into a county agency that would also administer the rail system. They both believe the county should prevent cities from cherry-picking commercial properties in unincorporated areas such as Lealman. And they both agree the county commission has shit on the beach communities for too long.

Morroni: "The beaches were neglected way too long by previous county commissions."

Buby: "The beach communities raise about 40 percent (of county taxes), but they don't get 40 percent back. The money should stay where the money is raised."

Explanation: District 6 runs westward from St. Petersburg and includes, most important, the southern beach municipalities.

Making the District 6 decision particularly difficult for voters, the one issue that Morroni and Buby disagree over — county-administered health care — is somewhat moot, even if it is idealistic. The problem is that health care is not county government's primary responsibility. That daunting task falls largely on state and federal government.

"They want to know about roads, taxes and retirement," Morroni says of Pinellas voters. "They don't look to the county commission to provide health care to the masses."

In 2000, the St. Petersburg Times endorsed Buby over Morroni, while this year the National Organization for Women, AFL-CIO and Service Employees International Union have thrown their support behind the Democrat.

The high-profile endorsements don't faze the well-heeled Morroni. He plans to return to basics: shoe-leather campaigning. Up until Nov. 5, the Republican will go door to door, reintroducing himself to voters.

"If you're coming to my door, you really want the job," Morroni says. "[Voters] remember that. Sometimes you might be the only politician they meet their whole life."

Buby has stepped up his sidewalk campaigning as well, but Buby's inability to focus pragmatically on important issues — mass transit, zoning, annexation, services for unincorporated areas — forces voters to question his ability to analyze nuts-and-bolts issues and make difficult countywide decisions.

Pinellas needs better roads and effective mass transit, creative ideas for sparking economic development and encouraging tourism, and suggestions on how to warm relations between county government and the city of St. Petersburg. Leave most of the health care issues to Tallahassee and Uncle Sam. Pinellas has enough problems.

Contact Staff Writer Trevor Aaronson at 813-248-8888, ext. 134, or e-mail him at [email protected].

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