Remembering Hillsborough County Elections Supervisor Phyllis Busansky

And wondering who runs the Elections Office next.

click to enlarge Remembering Hillsborough County Elections Supervisor Phyllis Busansky - Stehlik Photography
Stehlik Photography
Remembering Hillsborough County Elections Supervisor Phyllis Busansky

Faaaabulous!: Phyllis Busansky in 2006, during her unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Congress, on the campaign trail with Sen. John Kerry.

It's funny the things you remember — and don't remember — about your friends when they die. I spent much of an afternoon last week searching my brain for a tiny detail about Phyllis Busansky among the thousands of bits of info I know about her over the past two decades.

A drink. I can't remember the last line of a 1991 Tampa Tribune article that I wrote about Phyllis on the night she completed her major opus, an effort to create a decades-ahead-of-its-time indigent health care plan in Hillsborough County. I remember how she gathered allies, the narrative approach the story was written in, the delight in my editors when they read it. The last line had her going out for a drink after the vote (I was along) and detailed exactly what she drank.

But it's gone, lost in the recesses of my brain and not available online.

Phyllis Busansky — who died of natural causes last week, on the job at an elections conference in St. Augustine — was a unique political force in Tampa Bay. She was a domineering presence, physically and mentally, smart and savvy, with top columnists' phone numbers at the top of her speed dial and an unwavering enthusiasm that led to her say the word "faaabulous" at least once every 10 minutes.

She will probably most likely be remembered best for her 1991 indigent health care plan, winning a 6-1 vote on the Hillsborough County Commission to raise sales taxes by a half-cent to create a system of effective, preventive health care clinics for the working poor and uninsured. The idea was to provide early care that is cheaper than letting illness settle in and end up at an expensive hospital emergency room, where the public was paying for it after the fact via Medicare or through higher health care costs for the insured.

Busansky's response on winning the battle to create the groundbreaking program: "I'm just thrilled. I think it's a great day for Hillsborough County."

She was one of those politicians you knew only by one name: Phyllis. It became so ubiquitous that she actually incorporated it into her unsuccessful 2006 congressional campaign, the second time she ran and lost in her attempt to go to Washington. I was an unpaid adviser in the first congressional attempt, in 1996, when she finished third to Jim Davis and former Mayor Sandy Freedman.

In many ways, Phyllis was progressive. She was launched into the public eye in 1988, running a reform campaign against big-money pro-development forces in the person of Tom Vann, whose $200,000 campaign bankroll dwarfed Busansky's cash on hand. She hired a little known political consultant named Mary Repper, who told Busansky to go stand next to Vann at every campaign appearance possible, unnerving the Tampa city councilman with her enthusiasm and guts. Phyllis won, and joined a progressive bloc on the board that included Ed Turanchik, Sylvia Kimbell and Pam Iorio, who would go on to be (like Phyllis) Supervisor of Elections before becoming Mayor of Tampa.

Unlike the right-wing Hillsborough board today, halting runaway growth, restoring voter confidence and pushing conservation programs were priorities during those years. But Phyllis could be exasperating to her friends and allies; many at the time did not understand why she twice voted down gay rights ordinances at the county level that would have given protections in employment, housing and accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation. I never heard her give a solid explanation, and the best description I find now in accounts of that time comes from the St. Petersburg Times, which said she was against it because "it went further than local government should go in instituting social change."

During the debate over a second vote, the Times reported: "An angry Busansky lashed out at what she called 'extremists' on both sides who refused to consider a middle ground that Busansky said was more acceptable to the 'moderate majority.'"

Busansky bragged that her indigent health program saved $100 million in taxpayer costs in its first four years alone. It became a national model. And it shifted indigent health costs off the backs of property owners and into the broader sales tax, so some would be paid by visitors and tourists.

The move won her 1995 recogntion as "Public Official of the Year" in Governing magazine. She was term-limited out of office by 1996, and after losing the congressional race that year, she moved to spread the gospel of her health plan. Gov. Lawton Chiles sidetracked her from that job in 1997, named her as executive director for Florida's welfare reform project, called WAGES. I worked as a communications director in that effort for almost a year.

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