Sharpe vs. Burgin in Hillsborough County Commission GOP primary: A preview of the transit tax vote?

When asked why he'd waited until the near last minute, Burgin says it was his understanding that other people were looking into it. But as the deadline approached and no one had yet entered the race, Burgin said he spoke with his wife and decided to opt in, because “if he had gone unopposed, many Republicans would have come to the conclusion that they were giving [Sharpe] their tactic support."

Many don’t, none more prominent in Hillsborough County than heavyweight conservative Hillsborough activist Sam Rashid, for whom Burgin worked for two years at HOLTEC USA, a lumber milling equipment manufacturer.

Rashid, a big critic of the rail referendum, denied allegations initially that Burgin had been his hand-selected vessel to challenge Sharpe in late August.

However, his assertion lost credibility when it was discovered that Rashid had given Burgin an extraordinarily generous severance package of over $20,000 on the day that his former employee announced his candidacy, despite the fact that he had only worked for Rashid for two years, making approximately $34,000 annually.  Though completely legal,  the development caused the local media to pounce.

In evaluating the 50-year-old Sharpe, it should be stressed that though his support for a rail system has made him appealing to Democrats, the Navy veteran is certainly no liberal.

One of his main focuses over the past year has been on streamlining local government.  He repeatedly discusses how budget cuts and property tax reductions have had a transforming effect on local governments.

He also speaks frequently about creating a “thriving market” for new entrepreneurs, bringing biotech and hi-tech jobs to work with USF and the Moffitt Cancer Center.  And he’s been a fierce critic of the county’s growth management laws, which he says “have been disastrous.”

As for Burgin, nothing gets him as exercised as the transit referendum, which if passed would give Hillsborough an 8-cent sales tax, the highest in the state.

At a recent debate, Commissioner Sharpe praised voters for being able to make their own decision, and “not allow special interests to shut down the vote.”

But Burgin believes there are other measures that could improve transportation in the County, questioning why there are no carpool lanes in the Bay area.  He also questions the spending at the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Agency (HART).  “We’re subsidizing $5 to $6 in costs for every dollar spent,” saying there could be a serious discussion on subsidies for public transportation.

When it comes to the criticism that transit never pays for itself, a favorite line used by anti-rail advocates this year, Mark Sharpe says that roads don’t pay for themselves either, and have always required subsidies.

But Burgin fires back that with federal gas taxes, citizens are paying for such roads at the pump every time they refuel their car.

Sharpe’s experience and work in the community dwarfs the 34-year-old Burgin’s. But if the upstart upsets the incumbent, or even puts a serious scare in him, it could be a portent of how the transit referendum will fare on November 2.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe has undoubtedly alienated a segment of the local Republican Party for his unabashed leadership role in crafting the referendum on a one-cent sales tax for transit and road improvements that county voters will weigh in on in November.

So for much of this year it was something of a surprise that no other Republican had dared to challenge him for his re-election bid in the District 7 primary.

But that changed on the last day for candidates to qualify, on June 18. That’s when 34-year-old Plant City resident Josh Burgin,  former executive director of the Hillsborough County Republican Party and a former aide to Brian Blair, dramatically entered the race.

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