It was Ed Hooper's 67th birthday on Tuesday, so who better to lead a rendition of "Happy Birthday" to the Clearwater House Republican than Norm Roche?
With his rich baritone voice leading the way, the sometimes controversial Pinellas County Commissioner was magnanimous in honoring his opponent in this month's District 2 Republican race for Commissioner. After ending the brief song, Roche stood deadpan and remarked, "Now it gets ugly."
He was joking, but with just 20 days to go before Pinellas GOP voters decide who they want to nominate against Democrat Pat Gerard, Roche is the anti-Establishment candidate who is going to need more than just his Tea Party base to upend the more mainstream Hooper.
The two each got a few minutes to sell themselves and their candidacies to about 50 people Tuesday night at a forum sponsored by the Historic Kenwood Neighborhood Association at the Metro Wellness Center in St. Petersburg.
"My first term has been just phenomenal," Roche told the audience, after self-deprecatingly beginning with the admonition that he's "not a soundbite guy. I'm a substance guy.
"I don't care for the game of politics. I leave that to the professionals. Lord knows we've got plenty to choose from," he continued. Speaking of the challenges that Pinellas faces over the next four years, the commissioner — elected for the first time in 2010 as a Republican after failing at the polls in previous years as a Democrat — highlighted what he said has been too much freewheeling spending by his colleagues on the Board of County Commissioners.
"We are very quickly on pace to return to what I would call bubble spending levels in Pinellas County, without the bubble revenue. It’s been done this time to increase taxes and fees and what have you."
He went on to say that he and his colleagues agree on most of the standard issues that have come before, but of course Roche has been in the minority on big-ticket items like the Greenlight Pinellas initiative and the fluoride issue.
Actually, Roche was with the majority of the BOCC in 2011 to stop adding fluoride to the public water system, but that move proved to be unpopular with the public, who ended up throwing out two of the Commissioners who supported that controversial measure a year later — the only two commissioners (Nancy Bostock and Neil Brickfield) who were on the ballot.
The third vote who supported removing fluoride from the water supply — John Morroni — apologized for the vote and reversed his decision when the issue came back before the board in 2012. That leaves Roche vulnerable on the issue, as he was the lone dissenter when the board reversed its 2011 decision. He advised the audience to research the records of himself and Hooper, and not rely on press reports, which over the years have not been so kind to him. "Do not believe the newspaper. Do not believe the media," he stressed.
Preceding him to the dais was Ed Hooper, term-limited from his House seat in a few months. Giving props to the late Congressman Bill Young, Hooper said that when some of the defense contractors who Young recruited to Pinellas' contracts expire there is the possibility that there could be a large void in the local economy. "We have to concentrate on ... keeping these employers afloat." He also said that fixing the Fire/EMS formula was essential, adding because of his 28 years working as a fireman and EMT worker, "I might have a little knowledge of how to do that."