Call him Norm

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Before being elected as a Republican to the Pinellas County Commission this fall, Norm Roche ran as a Democrat — and lost three times.

"The greatest thing that ever happened to me were the losses," Roche says now. "I was so full of piss and vinegar that first time, had I won, I probably would have stepped in it very badly. The losses oughta be a prerequisite. Honestly — it keeps you humble."

But his piss-and-vinegar levels haven't exactly subsided since he took office. He "stepped in it" almost immediately, insisting on retaining an aide despite the Commission's attempts to eliminate the position. He's markedly informal, favoring cowboy boots and preferring to be called "Norm," and his communication style, he acknowledges, can be blunt.

"You get asked that question, 'What's the best thing about you?' I say, 'Brutal honesty.' They'd say, 'What is the worst thing about you?' I'd go, 'Same thing.'"

His candidacy itself was a departure from, ahem, the norm, and a controversial one. The party switch looked to some to be a naked attempt to take advantage of a favorable campaign climate for Republicans rather than a true change of heart. But the 48-year-old Palm Harbor resident states that he changed his affiliation in 2006 after feeling ostracized by the Democrats for his religious beliefs. He says the final straw occurred when a Democratic official criticized the Jesus fish on the back of his truck.

"He said to me, 'I'm having a hard time because I didn't think you believed in all that horseshit,'" Roche recalls. "I said, 'Yes, I do. It's what I believe in, it's my thing and I don't judge you. And for the last time I heard, 'Well, you aren't really a Democrat.' I said, 'You know what? You're right, maybe I'm not.'"

Roche went on to run a grass-roots campaign against Democratic incumbent Calvin Harris, who had served on the board since 1997. Using his home garage as the "war room," he raised only $10,000 — an eighth of Harris' total — and canvassed voters with the most elementary of techniques.

"I just picked up the phonebook and started calling people," Roche says. "They'd say, 'This is actually Norm Roche? This isn't an automated call?'"

When he won, it marked the first time in 18 years that an incumbent Pinellas County Commissioner had been defeated for re-election.

"I know I'm the new guy, but I've got both feet into the fire and these issues aren't new to me," Roche said. "The same issues from 2004 when I first ran are still issues in 2010, but only six years worse."

Before running that first time, he'd spent 10 years at the county's policy research and solid waste office as a public information specialist. According to fellow Commissioner Neil Brickfield, Roche's experience working for the county has been invaluable.

"As a former employee, he has perspective that we don't," Brickfield said. "Without him working there, it all sounds good to us 10,000 feet up in the air."

Roche is good at bringing debates down to earth. During meetings he can often be heard saying, "Let's get to the meat of the matter." And he's not afraid to ask questions, he says — even stupid questions.

During the last public commission meeting of the year, funding for the jail annex turned homeless shelter program called Pinellas Safe Harbor came up for a vote. The commission didn't take the decision to give $210,000 from the general fund to the Sheriff's department lightly. Noting that the facility already costs the county $60,000 in upkeep, Roche asked for clarification: "Now does the $210,000 figure include the $60,000 we are already spending?" (The answer was yes.) Ultimately, the BOCC all voted in favor of the project, but told Sheriff Jim Coats that Safe Harbor has to show measurable success or else funding will be cut off.

"Our solution is to delineate an individual's origin of homelessness," Roche said. "And by doing so, Pinellas County may have stumbled onto a four-step program that could aid in the homeless crisis."

Recently, Roche came out against the extension of the five-cent bed tax, which was slated to sunset in 2015 but was extended until 2021. During the meeting on the issue, the Dalí Museum came seeking $2.5 million from the bed tax to make up for a budget shortfall needed to open the new museum. Roche proposed a pay-as-you-go penny bed tax which would only be active when funds for specific projects were needed, like the Dalí.

"The Dalí folks made their case, there is no question there," Roche said. "That is a valid investment in tourism, but I don't see us collecting additional money without a plan for it."

He found himself in the minority, although fellow commissioners shared many concerns on the issue, which was the topic of discussion for over four hours.

The possibility of the money going toward a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays was discussed at the same meeting. Later, Roche says he had lunch with Rays Senior VP Michael Kalt and their advising counsel Ed Armstrong.

"I asked them what they want, and they said it isn't working in St. Pete," Roche said. "I told them you are part of this community, but I am not going to vote to give you tax dollars for a new stadium. The citizens can, but not me."

Roche suggested they come up with a clear plan for a stadium and present it to the public and get input. He cited bad blood over the citizens who were relocated for the construction of Tropicana Field.

"They need to start making good on the promises they never kept," Roche said.

Whether Roche's brutally honest approach proves successful or hazardous to his position remains to be seen.

"I don't want a park or a building named after me," Roche said. "The greatest legacy will be an effective government that serves the people."

And if the people complain, he'll likely talk back. After the meeting regarding Roche's hiring an assistant, the commissioner received an e-mail from a citizen calling him a "butthole."

So Roche gave the citizen a call.

He introduced himself as "Commissioner Butthole."

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