Can This Donkey Be Saved?

Backbiting, money troubles, lost elections... Hillsborough's Democrats are ailing, and they're looking for a cure.

No one would have believed in the late1980s that in less than two decades, the Democratic Party in Hillsborough would be an also-ran.After all, Democrats held a majority on the County Commission in 1988. Democrats had retaken the Tampa mayor's office from Republicans (after Bob Martinez left to run for governor). Democrats passed progressive laws to provide health care for the working poor and to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. Democrats had a lock on the courthouse, holding all of the constitutional offices such as clerk of the courts and supervisor of elections.

But by the 2004 elections, the continuing rout of Democrats from public offices in Hillsborough was clear.

Today, eight months after President Bush carried Hillsborough by a 6.5 percent margin and two more County Commission seats switched over to the GOP (giving Republicans a strong majority), Hillsborough Democrats - like their counterparts elsewhere in the state, and by extension, the nation - are out of power in a huge way.

On voter registration rolls, at least, Democrats still outnumber Republicans by approximately 38,000 in the county, with Independents now making up almost 20 percent of the electorate. But Hillsborough has been trending Republican in performance for years, and the results in the November 2004 races were devastating for the faithful. The question remains: How do they recover?

Since the 2004 Election, there has been an onslaught of position papers written and think tank discussions covered on C-SPAN on why the Democrats have seemingly lost touch with the American public. There have been discussions about ideas - or the perceived lack of them - that might be the cause for the party not capturing the majority of the electorate.

This story is not about the idea gap, real or imaginary.

Instead, Hillsborough Democrats suffer a more fundamental problem. It's about political party organization, and how badly it's broken down locally in Hillsborough County. It is a story that is shrouded by personal machinations that have become the obsession of some local party activists.

As the Planet reported last week, dissension within the ranks of the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee escalated to a higher level when the committee's vice chairman, Bob Keenan, sent a letter to new Florida Democratic State Chairwoman Karen Thurman alleging a series of problems with the Hillsborough DEC Chairwoman, Janee Murphy. The allegations of fiscal mismanagement include a charge that she used a party debit card for personal needs.

Murphy denies any wrongdoing, and despite the controversy still enjoys support on the DEC. On the evening that news broke about the fiscal complaint, Murphy made a last-minute entrance to a Democrat gathering at Viva La Frida restaurant in Seminole Heights.

She got a standing ovation.

The recent County Commission 5-1 vote to ban gay pride displays in government-owned facilities illustrates the growing ideological split between outlying areas of the county and the city of Tampa, which remains the citadel of Democratic strength in Hillsborough. (It also shows the Democrats with less than a united front; only Kathy Castor voted against the ban, while Thomas Scott voted with his Republican colleagues, as he has done on many other occasions.) Ronda Storms, the Republican from Valrico who introduced the measure, clearly finds strong political support for it in eastern and southern Hillsborough.

University of South Florida-St. Petersburg political science professor Daryl Paulson says what's happening in those unincorporated areas of the county is a reflection of what's happening nationwide. "There is this suburbanization in which you get primarily

upper-middle-class individuals that tend to be Republican - and these communities are being formed outside the old urban core," Paulson said.

Pinellas County Democratic political consultant Kevin King says it's not that complex a problem to figure out. "In places like Valrico and Riverview you have a very conservative, rigid mindset."

The demographic disadvantage clearly showed itself in the Democrats' failure to retain the Hillsborough County Commission seat that party icon Jan Platt vacated in 2004 after being term-limited. Former Tampa City Councilman Bob Buckhorn ended up narrowly losing to Republican Brian Blair, previously best known as a member of the Killer B's professional wrestling tag team, complete with bumblebee-inspired black-and-yellow striped tights.

The growing power of Hillsborough County's GOP machine had already been made clear by Blair's surprisingly good showing in a 2002 race for County Commission. A political novice who will never be accused of speaking above the heads of voters, Blair came close to beating longtime Hillsborough elected official Pat Frank by frequently invoking her perceived liberal political philosophy in rural and suburban areas of the county.

But Buckhorn is arguably as conservative as many mainstream Republicans on some issues. And his name surely could not be unknown to those who follow Tampa politics, where the centrist-oriented Buckhorn became most famous for sponsoring an ordinance that kept nude dancers at least six feet away from their customers in 1999. The so-called six-foot rule or lap-dance law made national headlines for Buckhorn.