Though they have engaged at least twice before in formal debates, for the first time last night the metaphorical gloves came off in an at times intense forum between embattled Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White, and his two District 3 challengers, former state legislator Les Miller and community activist Valerie Goddard.
Nary a word had been previously discussed in the campaign about Commissioner White's legal battles from a year ago, after a Hillsborough jury found him guilty of sexually harassing a former aide, and subsequently leaving taxpayers on the hook for his legal defense. But in front of a majority African-American audience at the First Baptist Church in the College Hill section of East Tampa, White let loose, never more so than when the panelists were asked if if the County should adopt an ethics code.
"If we ever watch the news, or read a newspaper, or just live a life, I think everyone in this room at one point in time, has been lied on or accused of something that has not happened," White began when it was turn at the mic. "And that's called Welcome to America. I had my day in court. There was no evidence proven. There was not one shred of evidence that was proven, but we leave it into the court of popular and public opinion.That is fine......I have never, ever failed in the representation of my community." And then, in referencing a previous comment made by Les Miller, White continued. " Now, I tell you what. I hear work, work work...but when the going gets tough, we turn and run. That's okay, ..If I'm accused of something I didn't do, I'm not bending, I'm not bowing, I apologize that the County did not have the policies and procedures in place to protect me as well as you the taxpayers, but I guarantee you, I'm gonna fight as hard for myself, as I will for you."
When asked the same question moments before, Valerie Goddard said, "It is a travesty to think that we have folks who can continue to serve and represent our best interests when they still have a lack of accountability for their own," she said to a mixture of mostly cheers with some boos. Then Les Miller took his shot: "You elect your county commissioners to have integrity, to be trustworthy and to be honest, to represent you and not embarrass you," and a moment later, "People are losing their jobs, while we're having half a million dollars in suits, going back and forth...something is wrong here. I will support a code of ethics that you must live by. ...I guarantee you, if you elect me, I will not embarrass you."
A bone of contention among White supporters against Les Miller is that when he worked at Tampa General Hospital in charge of their minority and small business hirings, he did a poor job of getting people of color into those positions. White obviously couldn't wait to bring the issue up, and did so while asked to comment on a completely different topic. "Tampa General was going through one of its largest expansions in the history of their program, and spent $250 million expanding the hospital. You know how much money black people got out of that? $220,000, out of $250 million! That is pitiful, and the person who was over that program [Miller] sat there and collected over a million dollars in salary over the time he was there. That is not responsible leadership!"
A moment later Miller couldn't let White's comments go. "I told that man twice about the difficulty of that job," he said of White, who he then accused of trumping up the matter simply as a campaign issue. "He started to go to the newspapers and talk to them. He doesn't understand. There were other blacks on that board and I met with them and told them the same thing, and not one time did you hear them scream, because they understood what I was trying to tell them." He then held in his hand a manila envelope which he said contained figures that indicate that the problem hasn't changed since he left TGH in 2006. "The numbers are the same, and in some cases they're dismal. But yet, you haven't heard him say one thing since I left. Not one thing! So I'll ask him a question: Was it about getting the job done? Or was it about Les Miller?" as some members in the audience howled.
White took another shot at Miller later on, when the candidates were queried about whether they favor single-member districts, like the race they're competing for in District 3. They all said they did (with Goddard saying that La Gaceta had misquoted her on the issue), but White made reference to the fact that he was the only person of color on the current board, and said Miller could have, and should have, run for one of the other at-large districts, instead of trying to knock off one of the community's own. "We could all be working in concert together, helping each other in helping moving our community forward...that's what we should have been doing!" he bellowed.
Afterwards, CL asked Miller why he didn't run in another district. He replied that it was because members of the community came to him and asked him to challenge White. "If he had done his job, I wouldn't be in this race," he said defiantly.
White took several broadsides even at some who weren't even on the ballot. During his opening remarks, he took credit for a new $4.6 million sports complex to be opened in Progress Village soon. "We will be cutting the ribbon on for our children out in the Progress Village area that the previous Commissioner could not find the money for 10 years that he was there," a shot at former Commissioner and now Tampa City Council Chair Thomas Scott.
White said he was the only one sitting at the table who had protected his country a remark that Miller rebuked moments later, saying that he too was a veteran.
And White took a shot at Goddard, current chair of the Hillsborough Children's Board, when he described his experience as "not 20 years of dealing with just children that seems like you might be running for the school board, rather than county commission."
The moderator for the evening, Charles Goston, asked questions that were prepared from the audience. The last question definitely seemed to target Miller and Goddard it asked what did each candidate do to aid County Attorney Renee Lee, who in June was re-instated after having been put on paid suspension for her alleged role in approving an unauthorized pay raise for herself and related e-mail issues. The issue brought out the black community to several commission meetings in support. White said his standing up for Lee helped get her back on the board, and said it was indicative of his drive to fight for the interests of the community.