The Hooper-Gerard Pinellas County race is just starting, and it's getting nasty quickly

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On Tuesday, Clearwater state Representative and Pinellas County Commission candidate Ed Hooper forcefully responded to charges made by his Democratic opponent, Largo Mayor Pat Gerard, that accused him of peddling his influence in the Legislature through his control of a Clearwater-based consulting firm. But shortly after the Gerard campaign issued its press release, Hooper accused Gerard of using taxpayer expenses to solicit campaign funds while representing Largo at the Florida League of Cities event in Tallahassee in April.

And on Wednesday, he hinted that there will be more attacks to come Gerard's way.

"I'm a firm believer that when they throw a stick of dynamite at you, light the fuse and throw it back," he told CL. "We'll be lighting the fuses and throwing back."

Team Gerard fired first on Tuesday, issuing a press release titled, "Tallahassee Ed's Profiting from Ties to Influence Peddling Consus Group Raises Big Questions." It referred to his work as a partner with The Consus Group, which works with developers and others working with local governments on planning and permitting decisions, mostly in Clearwater but sometimes elsewhere in Pinellas County.

“This is the equivalent of insider trading," Mayor Gerard said in a statement. "Ed was paid by the taxpayers to work for us, not to sell his influence and access under the table to the highest bidder. He was paid over $275,000 by The Consus Group while he was chairing an appropriations committee and voting on legislation in Tallahassee that awarded billions in taxpayer money, that's a pretty big conflict.”

Officially it was $278,480. Hooper has said he will leave the firm if elected in the Countywide District 2 race in November, but says that while he did do well financially in the mid-aughts (2006-2008 primarily), he hasn't made more than $11,500 in the past four years. (His salary in the Legislature is $29,000 a year.) "If she's saying that I did that to feather my nest, than I didn't feather it too well," he scoffed.

Making more than a quarter of a million dollars is "pretty nice," replied Tom Alte, Gerard's campaign manager. He says that Hooper is admitting to using his position in Tallahassee to help developers navigate the regulatory government process while he was an elected official, and he says that's ethically wrong.

"When he was paid by the taxpayers to work for us, he shouldn't have been also earning money on the side with the 'Representative' next to his name to feather his nest," Alte maintains.

Gerard and Alte have already made an issue of how much Hooper has taken in fundraising from Tallahassee interests, derisively calling him "Tallahassee Ed." Hooper is leaving the Florida House this year after serving the maximum four terms in office.

But while defending his work with The Consus Group, Hooper brought up Gerard's springtime visit to Tallahassee on behalf of the city of Largo during the Florida League of Cities annual meeting, where he claims she used city of Largo funds to reach out to lobbyists regarding her campaign for county commission, and not on issues regarding Largo, claiming she never contacted him, Representative Larry Ahern or state Senator Jack Latvala — Largo's three representatives in Tallahassee. 

"That's a violation of the law. That's not an ethical complaint. That's not a conflict of interest. That's taking the citizens' money for campaign purposes," Hooper says. "If I was a taxpayer from the city of Largo, I'd be extremely mad."

Alte acknowledges that Gerard did not meet up with those legislators, but said she did meet with South Pasadena GOP Representative Kathleen Peters. Hooper says that shouldn't count, since Peters doesn't represent Largo. Alte says that Peters does represent Pinellas County, however, and that "It's not like the Mayor of Dunedin has to meet with the representatives from Dunedin."

Lobbyist Ron Book has told the Times that Gerard called her up while she was in Tallahassee, wanting to talk about raising money, not issues affecting Largo.

The level of intense rhetoric and charges may be just beginning. Hooper tells CL that he's soon going to follow up with an allegation that Gerard violated elections laws regarding using a raffle for campaign purposes. 

The allegation about raffles refers to Gerard's campaign this summer, when an email went out after the Pride Parade in St. Petersburg. Gerard wrote people "loved our equality signs and wanted them for their yard," so she proposed raffling off the signs if people made a $10 donation to her campaign.

But Gerard campaign manager Tom Alte says that after receiving pushback from conservative activist Tom Rask, the Gerard campaign opted not to actually conduct such a raffle. 

Hooper warns that "the hits are going to keep on coming," adding that "there's going to be quite a few days where Mayor Gerard's not going to have a good day."

Alte responds by saying "I think this just shows the lengths that Tallahassee Ed will sling mud at Pat."

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