Working their way up: Three experienced candidates — Saul-Sena, Hagan and Hosler — vie for Hillsborough's District 5 seat

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In Linda Saul-Sena’s campaign office on a Thursday afternoon in mid-September, her husband Mark and a campaign aide are hunched over laptop computers, analyzing potential voter contacts. Hillsborough County is big — really big — and for a candidate who is sometimes derided as rarely venturing north of Kennedy Boulevard, running for countywide office for the first time is a supreme challenge.


When asked about that perception, Saul-Sena immediately references her work as a planner in the 1970s to show that she’s familiar with many aspects of the county. But stereotypes die hard, and comments she made in a St. Petersburg Times profile in 2007 — where she happily pled guilty to the charge of being too “Tampa-centric” and having no inclination to ever want to represent Wimauma — don’t help.


Her candidacy excites residents who feel that for too long the BOCC has been a rubber stamp for local development, and those who say they like her advocacy for the arts, historic preservation and the environment. Saul-Sena is also a big proponent of the one-cent transit tax up before Hillsborough voters in November, calling it a “game-changer” that will enhance the quality of life in the county.


But in the rough-and-tumble world of politics that any Democrat running countywide encounters, Saul-Sena has stumbled along the way. Most noticeable was her failure (along with former City Council colleague John Dingfelder) to promptly submit paperwork to the Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections office stating she would be leaving her seat to seek higher office. The mistake was embarrassing and local Republicans seized upon it, leading to a court battle that Saul-Sena (and Dingfelder) ultimately won.


But what was jarring to some about the incident was that when it happened, Saul-Sena appeared to be in denial, barely acknowledging it. When asked about that reaction now, she says she was advised to minimize the situation and admits, “The reality is I was extremely angry at myself for not getting the paperwork in properly. I was devastated to leave Council early, and I’m so sorry that it happened.”


Democratic political consultant Mitch Kates led Saul-Sena’s campaign before she jettisoned him after he announced he would be working for the Florida Hometown Democracy Amendment without informing her first. But even sans Kates, Saul-Sena hasn’t lost her edge on why she would be better than Hagan, whom she accuses of lacking ideas. “Any ideas that have come from Mr. Hagan, somebody else has scripted for him, and he can barely read through the script,” she asserts.


Although it’s fair to say that Linda Saul-Sena disagrees passionately with Ken Hagan on many of the issues, dismissing the current Board chair as not initiating plans or coming up with new ideas simply isn’t accurate. In fact, Hagan has recently called for the granting of property tax breaks of up to 10 years to new businesses that relocate to the county or expand their existing businesses, a plan that will go before Hillsborough voters in November.


Ask Hagan to list some of his accomplishments and he will spend several minutes talking about helping to build or expand parks, libraries and fire stations, his work on children’s issues, and his chairing economic task force and transportation committees. He also boasts endorsements from all the local law enforcement agencies, and earned the coveted blessing of the Tampa Tribune editorial page.


Those accomplishments, as well as a huge lead in fundraising (where he has raised over $300,000), are notable advantages — and needed ones. Because for the first time, Hagan is running countywide, and not just in the conservative Republican redoubt that is the New Tampa District 2 seat he’s represented since first being elected in 2002.


Hagan paid a visit to CL’s Ybor offices in late September, where our first question was why is he running this year, when he still had two years before he would be term-limited out of his seat? His answer is less than definitive: “We have some significant challenges in the county, in our economic conditions, job creation efforts, transportation efforts … and I’d like to be able to focus on those over the next few years.”


However, to hear his independent challenger Jim Hosler tell it, Hagan wasn’t sure he could win countywide in 2012, and thus decided to leave his seat early to run this year.


“I talked to the man early on,” Hosler says of Hagan, when he was deciding whether he would challenge him or Mark Sharpe. “And that was his thing. ‘I don’t want to run when President Obama is running because all the Democrats will come out,’” he says.[image-1]


Critics say Hagan’s been too reliable a vote for the development community over the years, a charge he says is absurd. “What I always find fascinating about the people who make comments like that,” he says, “is they hold the Planning Commission as this independent body that truly cares and respects the land, and yet we approve approximately 75 percent of the same sprawling developments that the Planning Commission recommends, so you can’t have it both ways.” Hagan adds that there are “dozens” of developments that he voted against.


As Commission Chairman, the 43-year old Hagan also had to deal with more stress than usual on a board that has been frequently labeled “dysfunctional.” First was the Kevin White situation (in which the county was financially liable to the tune of $475,000 after White was found guilty of sexually harassing an aide), and then there was the salary-investigation drama involving County Administrator Pat Bean (who ultimately stepped down earlier this year).


Then Hagan found himself in the uncomfortable position of being responsible for a transportation task force committee that came out in support of the penny sales tax referendum to fund light rail. Hagan has said he personally opposes the measure and thinks it will lose, but did vote with the majority to allow voters to decide for themselves this fall, a vote he says he received “a lot” of pushback on from his fellow conservatives. He says he’s against the proposal because what the board voted for is not what his Task Force approved, and he thinks it’s a terrible time to raise taxes.


Jim Hosler is also against the transit tax. The 58-year-old has been one of the most articulate critics of the measure on the campaign trail, writing sometimes daily updates on his blog  (hoslerforhillsborough.com) about what he says is an ill-conceived proposal.


Running as an independent for political office without significant name recognition or a war chest of any sort is extremely formidable, and Hosler is neither rich nor famous. In fact, the most recent fundraising totals show him with a negative cash flow. But ideas he has aplenty, and he's been impressing citizens wherever he discusses them.


Eastern Hillsborough County environmentalist Marcella O’ Steen is one such supporter. She says that Hosler’s stance on the rail issue and his opposition to the comp plan amendment for the I-4 “green tech corridor” expansion into the Seffner and Dover rural areas won her over. “His command of these two issues just blew me away,” she says.


Although Hosler says he has two weak opponents, he’s relatively soft on Saul-Sena, calling her a “good person who works hard.” But the candidate is relentless against Hagan, whom he belittles on virtually every topic.


A registered Republican for many years, Hosler is expected to present more of a problem for Hagan, but he says he’s been accosted by voters who tell him they were supporting Saul-Sena but now favor him. “Every single candidate forum, people come afterwards and say, ‘I didn’t know about you ahead of time, but I really like what you had to say and I’m going to vote for you.’”


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Linda Saul-Sena’s public persona is that of a sunny optimist. Serving on Tampa’s City Council for 19 out of the last 23 years, she’s been blessed with never having had to sweat out a serious challenge in any of her five runs for office in Tampa. But facing a well-financed incumbent in Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan in their race for the countywide District 5 seat, Saul-Sena seems to relish dismantling her finely polished image by going negative.

Saul-Sena has a partner in criticism in independent Jim Hosler, a former Hillsborough County planner who said he specifically got into the race because “Ken doesn’t work hard.”

In separate encounters with CL, both candidates reeled off statistics about how many meetings they say Hagan has failed to attend in his duties as County Commissioner, claiming he’s missed a majority of sessions when serving on the county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, and they both say he failed to attend any meetings when he represented the commission at the scandal-plagued Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance.

When asked to respond, Hagan pauses before saying “I’m probably one of the hardest-working elected officials and candidates, and I think I missed one board meeting in eight years. I think that can stand up to any board member.”

What countywide voters make of those charges against Hagan is one of the factors that make this perhaps the most interesting local race in the Tampa Bay area this year.

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