Pat Kemp vs. Mark Nash: Hilllsborough County Commission, District 4 (countywide)
“I’m Pat Kemp running for County Commission. Do you live in the county?”
It’s early yet at the Ybor City Saturday Morning Market, with just a few customers straggling through. So Kemp, who’s running against Mark Nash to be the Democratic candidate for Hillsborough County Commission, sticks to kibitzing with vendors like Monica Obando, who’s selling different brands of honey. Obando lives in Pasco, not Hillsborough County, but Kemp makes easy conversation after she learns that the merchant is from Colombia. “I took the gondola,” Kemp says of her visit there. “That’s public transit!”
It’s just a few weeks before the Aug. 26 primary, when the 57-year-old Seminole Heights Democrat hopes to emerge victorious and go on to face the Republican opponent in the countywide race, incumbent District 4 Commissioner Al Higginbotham. But the voters are mostly just “potential” on this Saturday morning; many of them don’t live in Hillsborough, or are Republican or Libertarian, which precludes them from voting in the primary.
It’s one of the downfalls of retail politicking in such a vast county. That’s why Kemp says she hasn’t done much of it during this truncated election season, preferring direct mail, social media and fundraisers to raise attention (and money) for her campaign.
Both Kemp and Nash got into the Democratic primary race extremely late, after Tampa City Councilwoman Mary Mulhern and school board member April Griffin dropped out of the contest. After their departure, it appeared that the much-maligned Hillsborough Democratic Party was willing to concede a very winnable seat (Higginbotham has never run countywide).
This is Kemp’s second foray into electoral politics. A former aide to state legislator Sara Romeo and Kathy Castor (when she served on County Commission), she lost to Janet Cruz in a special House election in 2010. Since that time she’s worked with the Sierra Club. Nash, 52, has also spent time as an aide, working with Commissioner Kevin Beckner during his first 18 months in office. He also ran against Higginbothm in District 4 two years ago, and though he lost handily he did gather over 49,000 votes, the most ever for a non-Republican in that district.
Both candidates have been vocal critics of the commission, criticizing decisions like the major tax break offered as a lure to Bass Pro Shops last year. And while they support the idea of more transit, they come at it from different perspectives. Kemp supports holding another referendum on increased transit options, but Nash is more circumspect; he has not come out in support of the proposed transit tax which is likely to be on the 2016 ballot. Instead, he’s promoting “a demonstrator line,” with the most obvious example being a system connecting downtown to Tampa International Airport.
Last week Nash sent out a slash-and-burn mailer that assailed Kemp for being a poor leader while running the Hillsborough Democratic Party four years ago. The move created sympathy for Kemp in some quarters, but some political consultants — apparently including Nash's strategist Chris Mitchell — believe negative campaigning works.
Ed Narain vs. Sean Shaw: House District 61, Tampa
Whoever wins this intensely fought contest is going to be part of a minority of Democrats in Tallahassee, where sometimes the best one can do is stop egregious legislation. But you’d think it was a race for the U.S. Senate the way Sean Shaw and Ed Narain are going at it.
CD 61 encompasses East Tampa, Seminole Heights, West Tampa and Ybor City, and is heavily Democratic.
Shaw labeled Narain a closet Republican — worse still, a “Rick Scott Republican” — in a recent mailer. Although Narain hasn’t sent out anything as risible, Shaw contends that his supporters have engaged in a whispering campaign that has assailed Shaw for being a carpetbagger.
Let’s review: Shaw is a lifelong Tallahassee resident whose pedigree predicted success. He attended Princeton, and his father is Leander Shaw, the first black chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court. In 2008 he was appointed the state’s insurance consumer advocate. He also ran for office for the first time that year, losing a race while running as a House Democrat.
In 2010 he moved to Tampa to work on Alex Sink’s gubernatorial campaign. When Sink lost to Rick Scott, Shaw quickly transitioned to working at the Merlin Law Group, which he says is one of the best in the country in representing homeowners against property insurers. He began establishing relationships in the community leading up to his run for the seat occupied by a term-limited Betty Reed.
But standing in the way of his return to Tallahassee on a professional level is Narain, a 37-year-old area manager for AT&T and former student body president at USF.
Narain resents the suggestion that his affiliation with corporate giant AT&T makes him less of a voice for the common working man in HD61. He says he’s proud of who he is and what he’s accomplished. “I’ll never be ashamed for who I work for, and I think it’s absurd when people say, ‘Oh, he’s a corporate guy.’ Hello? I have a job. I love my company... we’re the big tent party and we can’t afford to isolate people just because of who they work for. That’s absurd.”
Although Shaw has an impressive coterie of endorsements, Narain has captured perhaps two of the most prized ones in the district — from the Florida Sentinel Bulletin and from outgoing HD61 Representative Betty Reed, who noted his roots in the community in her statement.
But the gloves have come off with that “Rick Scott Republican” crack. “It’s a low blow,” says Narain. “Twenty years of service will not be beaten by 20 months of pretending.”
Shaw responds that Narain is the only candidate in the race who’s receiving corporate contributions from groups like the Florida Retail Foundation and conservatives like Dean Cannon and his political consulting firm, Political Insights. When Cannon and Mike Haridopolous took over as legislative leaders in 2011, Cannon boasted about their “hard-right” credentials.
Sharon Carter and Tatiana Denson round out the field, with the winner to face a write-in candidate in November.
Ryan vs. Sarnoff vs. Vercher: House District 67, Clearwater/Largo
Despite the unpleasant residue from losing a court case against a former NBA referee two years ago that forced her to file for bankruptcy, Shawna Vercher hasn’t slowed down a bit in her bid for the Democratic nomination for HD 67, with the winner likely to face Republican Chris Latvala in the fall.
The 37-year-old former talk show host and media consultant leads in fundraising over her two opponents in the Democratic primary, dairy worker Thomas Ryan and Clearwater account manager Steve Sarnoff.
A native New Yorker, the voluble Sarnoff says he’s no longer saying anything about Vercher on the campaign trail. Well, almost. “I’ve had a few people tell me they had been supporting her, and they switched when that stuff came out, and they wanted to do some research and found out that there was truth in there... but I could care less.”
He says it’s been hard to combine campaigning with the rigors of a full-time job, saying, “I’m not on the phone all day raising money.” He says jobs, health care and the economy are the main issues people bring up.
Vercher is extremely enthusiastic about her chances of winning and advancing to November, and she credits her get-out-the-vote effort. “We feel that we personally reached out to thousands and thousands of people in our district.”
The main complaint she hears is how broken Tallahassee is. She says her campaign and her memoir, A Fearless Voice: How a National Scandal Made Me an Advocate for Building a Better America, are all about having the public look at the justice system and how it can be reformed, based on her real-life experiences. “I wish we could use it to launch a bigger conversation, but some of your counterparts from other press outlets still want to make it about me.”
Ed Hooper vs. Norm Roche : Pinellas County Commission, District 2(countywide)
To say that Norm Roche has had a stormy four years on the Pinellas Board of County Commissioners is to state the obvious. Though he shuns the Tea Party label (or any others you might attach to him), it’s undeniable that he has been the voice of the conservative movement that emerged in the county in 2010, pushing to remove fluoride from the county’s water supply and adamantly fighting the Greenlight Pinellas transit tax.
Regarding Greenlight, Roche says he was proven prescient when he warned PSTA officials against “the ‘us. vs. them’ attitude.”
“This has been sort of a one-sided debate from the very beginning, unfortunately,” he says. “It’s an adult conversation we should have, and it shouldn’t involve marketing firms and tactics and strategy and ‘they’re the bad guys and the Tea Party.’”
Ed Hooper, 67, has been term-limited from representing Clearwater in Tallahassee any longer, but the former firefighter says he still has something to give back to the community. He has had his eyes on a board run for awhile, but says that when he spoke with District 4 commissioner Susan Latvala earlier this year, she indicated that she would run again for four more years, making him opt to run countywide against Roche, whom he calls “very ineffective and somewhat divisive.”
Though the two disagree on several issues, Hooper sides with Roche in opposing Greenlight.
One issue that both men say they’ve heard a lot about on the campaign trail is term limits. A year ago there was the possibility that longtime stalwarts Ken Welch, Karen Seel, John Morroni and Susan Latvala might be booted off the board. All of them have served more than 12 years in office, even though Pinellas residents in 1996 voted for a maximum of two four-year terms in office. But the courts have ruled that current county charter provisions that do not contain term limits are valid.
“Seventy-three percent of the people in this county voted for it,” Roche says. “End of story.”
But will Roche’s story end on August 26? Though he says people don’t remember what happened in 2011 and 2012, the Tampa Bay Times editorial board is certain to remind voters that Roche is the last commissioner standing who still believes that removing fluoride from the water supply was a good idea. In moderate Pinellas County, that could be his undoing, as it was for Nancy Bostock and Neil Brickfield back in 2012.
Both men also agree that the voters need to do their homework to decide who’s the best choice to face the formidable Pat Gerard, the outgoing mayor of Largo who will be the Democratic nominee in District 2 in November.