Sharpe steps in

Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe hopes a moderate Republican can still win in the left-leaning District 11.

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click to enlarge TEMPERATURE, MODERATE: The commissioner in his office. - Shanna Gillette
Shanna Gillette
TEMPERATURE, MODERATE: The commissioner in his office.

"If you want to be popular with the editorial boards, nothing will make you as popular with the intelligentsia in America as 'compromise.' The press is constantly urging compromise. They root for it like it is the highest possible virtue, the sign of true maturity and achievement in life. I have found in government that it pays to be stubborn" —Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, in Tampa at the Republican National Committee Summer Meeting on August 4.

"Now compromise doesn't mean in Solomon like fashion we just split the baby. What it means is you address the problem, you do what I did as a commissioner. You lay out the facts, you sit down, and you build a consensus." —Mark Sharpe speaking to the press after announcing his candidacy for Congress on August 15

There's no question that Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe's brand of conservatism runs a bit more moderate than your average GOP member of Congress circa 2011. But that's hardly the largest issue he has to confront in his uphill battle to knock off Kathy Castor in Florida's 11th Congressional District next year.

The 51-year-old Tampa native kept supporters and press in some suspense on the morning of Aug. 15, moments before he was to address the thickening crowd at the Buddy Brew coffeehouse and announce his intentions for the coming year. Though his candidacy had been considered a sure thing for most of the summer, the commissioner had sounded tentative just days before his scheduled announcement date.

But four minutes into his speech last week, his commitment to the race was clear. The question remains whether the 11th District will be redrawn in a fashion that gives the moderate Republican a fighting chance. The frustration with gerrymandered Congressional districts led Floridians last year to overwhelmingly pass the Fair District Florida amendments, which call for all of the districts to be drawn up fairly and contiguously next year.

District 11 currently encompasses most of the city of Tampa and its suburbs and the shoreline of Southeast County, but also includes the urban neighborhoods of South St. Pete and neighborhoods in and around Bradenton.

GOP political consultant Mark Proctor, a close advisor to Sharpe, says if the district were redrawn to be exclusively in Hillsborough County, "I would give him a decent chance." Another consultant, Chris Ingram, says the race is still Castor's to lose, but says if any Republican in Hillsborough could have a chance, it's Sharpe.

Patrick Manteiga, the editor of La Gaceta and a Democrat, says if the GOP were wise in their redistricting, they could definitely make the 11th a competitive seat. But he doesn't believe the Republicans in nearby districts (Dennis Ross, Gus Bilirakis) will go for it. "Everybody is selfish and greedy when it comes to redistricting," says Manteiga.

There's no question that Sharpe has crossover appeal. During an appearance with this reporter on WMNF's Last Call program in June, his responses on transportation in particular won him new fans on the left-leaning station, including one Pinellas County woman named Annie who called in to say "this is one of the most amazing conversations from a politician in such a long time." Another caller praised him for being a "voice of reason."

This won't be Sharpe's first congressional campaign. He lost three straight runs for the District 11 seat in the '90s, though he was relatively competitive in 1992 and 1994 against Democrat Sam Gibbons. He says that he was ready to move on after the '94 loss, but then the equation changed after Gibbons retired in 1996. "I probably shouldn't have run," he now concedes of the '96 election, which he lost badly to Jim Davis. But he says it all worked out for the best, as he ended meeting his wife Stephanie the following year. Marriage and kids came after that, followed by a career as a teacher.

Then in early 2004, GOP political consultant Proctor, who had advised Sharpe back in 1996 not to run a third time for office, believing it could taint him forever, contacted him when Democrat Pat Frank announced that she would be stepping down from her seat on the County Commission to run for Clerk of the Circuit Court. Sharpe won that year, then again in 2006. He had his toughest fight in the county last year, not against a Democrat, but in his own party, as he was "primaried" by Josh Burgin, a candidate many people considered a stalking horse for GOP powerbroker Sam Rashid.

The Burgin/Rashid team wanted to inflict a hurt on Sharpe for violating what the recent debt debate in Washington exposed nationally: that it's unacceptable for a Republican to support any sort of tax. Sharpe, along with Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, were the public faces of the transit tax that aimed to bring a light rail system to Hillsborough County and spark a mass transit system throughout the Bay area.

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