The road to political war

A new expressway in eastern Hillsborough is about more than just moving cars

I was eating lunch in front of my favorite bartender, Larry, when the issue of mass transit came up.

Don't get me wrong — I'm not so wonkish that I just launch willy nilly into conversations about important and complex issues like transportation. We got to mass transit along a fairly circuitous route: I mentioned that young journalists aren't drinking enough these days; he responded by saying he didn't see the next generation of regulars at his bar either; I countered that it was because everyone fears getting a DUI and doesn't drink out; and we both blamed that on our lack of a transit system. If we had reliable and easy-to-use buses, we could drink more at our chosen pub or restaurant bar. It would be good for the economy.

Makes perfect sense.

You can bet the folks who are pushing a new expressway in eastern Hillsborough County don't have mass transit on their minds, nor heavy drinking for that matter.

Plenty of folks (rightly) are going to scream and shout about the lack of a need for a new highway cutting east of Brandon from Pasco to Manatee counties, and the danger of it contributing to urban sprawl in the mostly rural areas of Hillsborough. Just don't expect that kind of talk from the Hillsborough County Commission, which voted 6-1 to move forward with a study that could lead to construction. (Only Kathy Castor voted against the investigational study because of sprawl concerns, among others.)

The truth is that the expressway, and the enthusiastic reception it has received at the commission, is about more than just moving traffic or getting commuters from Pasco County to Manatee.

It is about control. It is about who will run Hillsborough. It is about growth and increasing the raw numbers of voters.

It is all about power.

Few of Tampa's urban power brokers realize the depth of dislike out in the 'burbs and beyond for their brand of politics. For decades, Tampa and its downtown set called the shots for the entire county. Tampa's mayor sat atop that heap.

But starting in the 1990s, a group of political activists in eastern and southern Hillsborough worked to change that mix. They knew that the Tampa political base had something they didn't: access to money, and lots of it. Developers and captains of industry played their politics and elected officials who hewed to a pro-downtown line. Tampa, with its working-class ethnic population, also skewed more Democrat.

So, armed with computers that constantly ran voter statistics, fueled by money from a handful of key supporters to pay for intensive polling that showed how and why certain candidates won races, and aided by a national swing to the right in 1994, these activists were ready to level the playing field. They brought together a working coalition to support conservative suburban candidates: anti-impact fee advocate Ralph Hughes, fiscal conservative Sam Rashid and anti-abortion financier Lorena Jaeb, to name a few.

They tapped into a basic reality: Most suburbanites live outside the city of Tampa because they want to. They don't like the city, with its urban ways, its ethnic flavors, its rundown sections and its too-exclusive, too-expensive neighborhoods.

They also realized much better than their city counterparts how to use grassroots support, mainly along social conservative lines.

And so slowly and surely — to paraphrase H.G. Wells — they drew their plans against Tampa.

Commissioners such as Phyllis Busansky and Dottie Berger (who both lived outside city limits) were replaced with truly suburban politicians like Jim Norman and Ronda Storms. The commission swung Republican, bringing with it a strong anti-tax, pro-morality bent.

But the real key has been how anti-Tampa the board became.

The Civitas plan to redevelop Central Park Village was just one of the first victims of the growing gulf between the county and the city when county leaders rejected a vital funding vote for it despite the mayor's request a few years ago. Squabbles over the HARTline bus system and how to spend tourist taxes followed. Politicians who were too closely identified with Tampa — former City Councilman Bob Buckhorn, for instance — got shot down when they ran for the County Commission.

Today, we see the results of this subterranean political war. So that brings us back to the proposed expressway. Those who think in the simplest terms will explain the county's 6-1 vote as a payoff from commissioners to their developer patrons. But the subtext here is that this commission is building an empire. Growth, particularly land areas opened to residential development via a new expressway, is good for suburban politicians. It builds turf, literally and figuratively.

Just look at the numbers.

A decade ago, voters in the city of Tampa made up 32 percent of the county's voting rolls. Today, that number has dropped to 28 percent. During those same 10 years, the number of registered voters outside of Tampa city limits has grown by 49 percent; inside city limits voter growth is only 25 percent. In this year's elections, 621,000 people are registered to vote in Hillsborough County. Only 174,000 of them live in Tampa.

The divide is not only ideological; it is all about geography. The war in Hillsborough politics has already begun. The new expressway is just another weapon. And a very expensive one, at that.

WEST TAMPA'S ARMORY: Last week saw the process for redeveloping the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory in West Tampa take a zigzag. On Aug. 1, a review committee considered six proposals and, at the urging of the city's development chief, Cindy Miller, ranked the top three.

Heritage Square's plans for a luxury hotel and European-style farmers and specialty market came in first, just edging out the film-and-television soundstage plan from Armory Partners Group. Bill Henry's Reliant ice rink plan came in third.

And that is how the media saw the meeting come down. It was widely reported that Heritage Square had "won" and that due diligence and negotiations would follow. Heritage Square's Tom Marler was on WFLA 970 AM radio on Thursday morning talking about their victory and how it would revitalize the neighborhood.

Game over, right?

Wrong. On Aug. 3, Miller briefed Tampa City Council and called some members of the local media to report that all six proposals were still alive and would be put in front of a Florida National Guard board in Starke on Aug. 12. That board would ostensibly be told of the local committee's rankings. The Guard owns the site and has to approve any redevelopment plans, in concert with Mayor Pam Iorio and the Tampa City Council.

Confusing, eh?

The "clarification" from Miller left the companies that thought they had "lost" shaking their heads and believing they had a second life.

Political Whore can be reached by e-mail at [email protected], by telephone at 813-739-4805 or on our blog at www.blurbex.com.

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