With friends like these...

The movement for a strong mayor in Hillsborough is getting an assist from the dailies.

I love the hubris of daily newspaper editorial writers.

They continue to act in all things political as if they had the same sway, the same oomph, they held 20 years ago, when a newspaper editorial could swing as much as 10 percentage points your way in an election.

In the intervening years, however, that influence has waned. When I left political consulting in 2004, I told my last client that getting the endorsement was good but was worth, at best, a point in most circumstances.

In a strange twist these days, getting the newspaper endorsement can kill you politically. I remember in 1996 when my then-client Tom Lee was making his first run for the Florida Senate, in a conservative Brandon-Plant City district. When he got the endorsement of the St. Petersburg Times, his opponents nearly derailed his campaign by pointing out that a liberal media outlet could never wrap its arms around a truly conservative politician.

Which bring us to the movement to create a county mayor system of government in Hillsborough, and the enormous helping hand it is getting from the editorialistas.

Strategically, the only way that the county mayor advocates can win their battle is to convince suburban and rural voters that their plan is not a ploy — either for the downtown/South Tampa power elite to regain the political control it once enjoyed at the County Commission, or for some Tampa politician's next political venture.

In case you haven't spent any time east of U.S. Highway 301 in the past decade, the voters in eastern and southern Hillsborough (not to mention places like Lutz, Odessa, Carrollwood and Westchase) have shifted the balance of power on the County Commission away from the generally better funded downtown-pro business forces that once ruled it. And they like their elected officials, even as some Tampa residents (and power brokers) genuinely fear and loathe them. See: Storms, Ronda.

These voters are very anti-Tampa, and suspicious of the city's traditional power structure. They have turned their backs on such identifiably Tampa candidates as Bob Buckhorn and chosen instead folks like Brian Blair. They laugh at the notion of Tampa politicians coming out to the suburbs and saying they have solutions to their problems when suburbanites can easily see that Tampa has unsolved problems of its own.

To win, county mayor proponents need to talk about how their proposal will increase government efficiency, cut costs and get needed road improvements underway, for starters. They need to make the case that a strong central elected official is the only one who can get 'er done.

But the editorial air support for Operation County Mayor is so over the top that it plays right into the hands of opponents who are busy spreading their contention that this is just another downtown Tampa power grab. Most of the heat has been directed not at the issue but at the person who is deciding whether the county mayor referendum will be on the ballot this year: Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson.

In a conversation last week, Johnson was genuinely flummoxed and outraged by the newspaper criticisms, the first real flak he has taken in a political career first in the Florida House of Representatives and later as Gov. Jeb Bush's appointment to replace former supervisor Pam Iorio when she became Tampa Mayor.

"I have tried to do my job fairly and impartially from the get-go," said Johnson, a Republican from Plant City. "I don't have any axes to grind. Just let me do my job. That's really what I feel like saying."

The dailies don't think he is doing his job. When he asked Attorney General Charlie Crist for an advisory opinion about deadlines for submitting petition signatures for the referendum, a Times editorial questioned his competence and added for good measure, "If Johnson wants to frustrate a citizen initiative, he should at least come clean with voters."

The Tampa Tribune aid to the cause goes much deeper. In its June 30 editorial, "County Mayor? Please Sign Petitions So Voters Can Decide," it printed the petitions on its pages, exhorting voters who liked the idea to sign and mail the petitions to Taking Back Hillsborough County, the political group led by the pro-county-mayor Mary Ann Stiles. The action prompted more than one political observer to call and ask me whether that printing would have to be shown as an in-kind political contribution. (The answer is no.) Stiles said her group turned in about 825 of the Tribune petitions.

Both daily newspapers have written that they are merely interested in giving voters the choice, the option. I doubt they would trot out the same excuse if the referendum proposed, say, banning nude nightclubs. Would they print a petition to prohibit gay marriage in the interest of "voter choice?" If the voters have a right to choose on county mayor, don't they have a right to choose on any matter?

For her part, Stiles matches Johnson's outrage when I mention criticism that her movement is designed to benefit downtown power brokers.

"It absolutely floors me, because I am the one behind this. I live in the county, and it has nothing do with the Tampa elite," she said. "It is the most specious statement."

Stiles also discounts any blowback that the Trib editorial support might cause.

"It's not just a paper for downtown Tampa," she said. "When I was born and raised in Riverview ... I [didn't] see it as a city newspaper or a county newspaper. I do not understand that argument."

If anything, Johnson is guilty of not putting the strong mayor referendum above all other matters in his office. But I suspect that the vast majority of voters would rather see the bulk of Johnson's 32 employees making sure that electronic voting machines are ready for September 5, training deputies and poll workers, ensuring that early voting booths are set to open on time, and that voter registration rolls are correct and up to date.

Supporters of the county mayor idea need to understand that the proposal doesn't have universal appeal; even someone as trusted as former County Commissioner Jan Platt has decried the proposal by Taking Back Hillsborough County and said it should be withdrawn and rewritten.

By heaping derision on Johnson and going to extraordinary lengths to ensure passage, however, the editorials merely provide ammo for critics to prove themselves right. It's bad strategy if proponents want to prevail on the ballot someday.

THE REAL PROBLEM: The Hillsborough County Commission has finally solved the problem of our clogged highways.

Judging from the issues that have topped the commission's recent agenda, we have far too many people on the streets heading to visit strip clubs or searching for good spots to burn a flag, Not to mention those hordes of people furtively seeking books by gay and lesbian authors at a local library.

Once we unclog the highways of perverts, commies and homos, you will be able to drive down Dale Mabry in Tampa or State Road 60 in Brandon at rush hour without so much as tapping your brakes.

And you thought the commissioners weren't doing anything productive.

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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