Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham’s passion for his hometown of Plant City and the strawberries grown there is well known to friends and acquaintances.
Every year in the weeks leading up to the Florida Strawberry Festival, Higginbotham buys dozens of flats of the red berries and hands them out to friends, family and agencies, from the county Aviation Authority to the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County.
“I’m from Plant City and that’s what you do,” Higginbotham said.
So the three-term commissioner was perplexed when he started getting calls last week about fliers that were popping up across his hometown claiming he bought those gift strawberry flats from another Florida county.
“Believe it or not, Al’s gift came from growers in Lee County,” the postcard-sized fliers say. “Call 813-272-5740 and tell Al to please buy produce grown here in Hillsborough County.”
The fliers had a color photo of a Naturipe Strawberry Farms brand with an Estero address.
Higginbotham said he always buys his strawberries from a small market at Interstate 4 and Branch Forbes Road. After he heard about the fliers, he asked the market’s proprietor whether he bought any strawberries from Lee County. The man got a funny look on his face and said, no, he buys his berries from Dover grower Patrick Borchard.
In an interview Wednesday, Borchard said Naturipe is a marketing company for Plant City-area growers.
“They are local berries, but the company marketing them has an office in Estero in Lee County,” Borchard said. “I think that’s where this all came about. It’s not uncommon for produce packs to put a sales office location on there.”
Higginbotham would not speculate on who printed the fliers. After three terms representing District 4 in eastern Hillsborough, the 58-year-old commissioner can’t run again because of term limits. He plans to run for the District 7 countywide seat in 2014.
But that election is 19 months away. Even in today’s year-round campaign cycle, it’s early for a political attack ad.
Mark Nash, who failed in his attempt to unseat Higginbotham in November, said he heard about the fliers but didn’t know who was responsible.
“I have no idea,” Nash said. “There are a lot of growers out in east Hillsborough. Maybe someone in the (agriculture) arena got wind of it and thought it was unfortunate that an elected official was promoting strawberries from outside the county.”
Dover activist George Niemann, a critic of Higginbotham’s policies and a volunteer on Nash’s campaign, was coy when asked if he was the source of the fliers.
“I can’t take ownership of it,” he said. “I think it was very creative. It was probably somebody else.”
Mary Mulhern, a Tampa city councilwoman and Democrat who is running for the same commission seat Republican Higginbotham is seeking, said she didn’t know who was behind the fliers. Mulhern saw one at the Florida Strawberry Festival. A Plant City grower was looking at the flier and said it didn’t look credible, she said.
“It looked kind of strange to me,” Mulhern said. “I kind of doubt there’s anything to it.”
Higginbotham said his nemesis should have done some homework.
“They went to a lot of effort to try to embarrass me and just demonstrated they don’t understand farming,” he said.