Taking on Kevin White

In Hillsborough's poorest district, a beleaguered but popular incumbent faces two opponents.

click to enlarge THE INCUMBENT: Sexual harassment charges and disputes over legal fees have embroiled Commissioner Kevin White in 2009-2010. - Rebecca Wainright
Rebecca Wainright
THE INCUMBENT: Sexual harassment charges and disputes over legal fees have embroiled Commissioner Kevin White in 2009-2010.

At a recent candidates' forum in Progress Village, the first time the three Democrats running for the Hillsborough County Commission District 3 seat had gathered together this campaign season, not a word was uttered about incumbent Commissioner Kevin White's troubles from a year ago.

That's when White, 45, lost a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a former aide, Alyssa Ogden. When his fellow commissioners discovered that Hillsborough County would be on the hook for White's $425,000 in legal fees, they sued him to recoup some of that money. White sued the county right back.

Neither of White's opponents — former state Senator Les Miller or Valerie Goddard, chair of the Hillsborough County Children's Board — dared bring up the issue. Nor have they on the campaign stump. The only criticism that Goddard delivered at the debate was one she's made frequently on the campaign trail — that Kevin White hasn't been there for his constituents in a district that contains some of the city and county's poorest neighborhoods.

"I'll be responsive. When you call my office, I'll be sure to respond to your calls," she told the crowd of approximately 50 people, mostly African-American, at the St. James AME Church off of 78th Street. "I've met with some of the residents, and they've shared their frustrations of not being able to get calls returned." The 45-year-old Goddard has been campaigning hard for nearly a year, going back to September of 2009. She's had to, because unlike her two male opponents she's a political neophyte. And work she has, integrating herself into various Hillsborough County Democratic groups.

"The more that people realize that I'm in the race and they get a chance to meet and talk to me, we find that they're more apt to support us," she says on a recent Saturday morning in Tampa Heights. "And certainly as we're walking these neighborhoods, we have people as soon as they find out that we're running against Kevin White, say 'You got my vote!' I would say conservatively, with 8 out of 10 people, that's their response."

One prominent Hillsborough County black community activist, Michelle Williams, is in that camp. After watching the Progress Village debate last month, she told CL that she's been backing Goddard since "Day 1" of her candidacy.

"I really feel that our current Commissioner Kevin White, that he could have done more for his district," she lamented. "In the event that he does not remain in office, I think it will be a lesson learned of past mistakes. I really believe that he's learned from things that he's erred in... we're trying to get past it as a community, but right now I feel that Valerie will be the best candidate for District 3."

The question is whether the upstart Goddard can reach enough voters one on one to convince them to support her. Her message is focused, optimistic and full of detail.

But in Kevin White, she's not just running against a tainted incumbent. To many voters in the black community, White appears to be someone who got a raw deal from the media.

(White declined to be interviewed for this story. Though he'd initially seemed willing to take part, he decided against it after being reminded by an aide that a contributor to Creative Loafing's blog, The Daily Loaf, had photo-shopped an image of him wearing a pimp-daddy outfit in her posts about the sexual harassment suit.)

Edward Cooper owns Coop's Barber Shop on Nebraska Avenue (one of several barber shops and other businesses I visited in the neighborhood), and he's an outspoken Kevin White supporter. He's not sympathetic toward Alyssa Ogden, the former White aide. Although a Hillsborough jury agreed that White had made an unwanted sexual pass at Ogden while she attended a conference with him in Atlanta, Cooper's not buying it.

"She got on the plane, she accepts the ticket, she went to Atlanta and had a great time. She rode back with him on the bus, so what can I say? Come on man, it don't take a rocket scientist!"

Cooper says he knows and likes Les Miller. "But what did he do for 14 years in office?" he asks. He doesn't know much about Valerie Goddard.

But speak to some female voters and you get a different impression. Rene Brown owns the Ladies of the Sea Seafood and Soul Food Restaurant on MLK Blvd. Count her among those who think that White has neglected those who helped him get into office. She says she voted for him, but "he forgot who I was after he got elected."

Main Street in West Tampa is also known as Moses White Boulevard, named after the Tampa civil rights leader who happens to be Kevin White's grandfather.

Foster's is a barbershop on Main Street. A barber who only wanted to be identified by his first name, Ben, says White gets his hair cut there regularly, which he says helps him with his constituents. "If you never come down here, it's hard, but if you frequent the neighborhood, you have a better chance of winning."

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