TAMPA — Just one Democrat remains in the running with four Hillsborough County Commission seats up for election now that candidate Mary Mulhern, a Tampa city council member, has withdrawn from the District 7 race for health reasons.
That means Republican Commissioner Al Higginbotham is the favorite to win the one commission seat Democrats had a shot at. Higginbotham faces two Republican opponents, Robin Lester and Don Kruse, whose campaigns are still looking to gain traction.
To some observers, this scenario raises serious questions about the Democratic Party's ability to compete in local elections. Democrats have 61,000 more registered voters in the county than Republicans, yet the GOP has a solid 5-2 majority on the commission.
“It starts with leaders recruiting candidates to run for office,” said Kevin Beckner, one of the two Democrats on the commission. “There's a lack of focus on the recruitment process at the state level. Their focus seems to be on getting people elected to Congress or statewide office.”
There is still time for a Democrat to get in the District 7 race. Candidates don't officially qualify until June and the general election is still 10 months off.
Alan Clendenin, first vice chair of the Florida Democratic Party and a Tampa resident, said he knows people who are eyeing the District 7 seat, which Republican Commissioner Mark Sharpe has to vacate because of term limits. Clendenin declined to name them.
“Hearing the names I'm hearing, they could raise the money to run an effective campaign,” Clendenin said.
But other observers, including some Democrats, say the county party's problems go well beyond this commission seat. Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, pointed to what she politely termed “reorganization” inside the county party that has distracted it from fielding candidates in the upcoming election.
“The county Democratic Party is restructuring and has not focused on recruiting as much as it needs to, especially young candidates,” MacManus said.
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School board member April Griffin, a Democrat, looked to have a chance at the District 7 seat but pulled out last year to devote more time to her board duties. Still, she said she is not seeking re-election to the non-partisan school board.
A member of the Young Democrats in the 1990s, Griffin said the party is now divided. Potential candidates, she said, are discouraged because they fail a “litmus test.” For instance, Griffin said some local party members were not enthusiastic about her candidacy because she likes to hunt and fish.
“The Democratic Party has some work to do,” Griffin said. “There's too much infighting going on instead of looking at who's the best candidate to win a seat.”
Other Democrats, however, cite victories in local races around the state as proof the state and local parties are fielding viable candidates.
Ana Cruz, a Democratic consultant, said it's unfair to blame the state party. With its limited resources, she said, the party must finance gubernatorial, congressional and Florida cabinet elections costing tens of millions of dollars.
In recent local races where the state party did help, Democrats were successful, Cruz said, citing Property Appraiser Bob Henriquez and Elections Supervisor Craig Latimer in Hillsborough County, Mayor Rick Kriseman in St. Petersburg and Mayor Alvin Brown in Jacksonville.
In a shot at Beckner, Cruz said local officials should shoulder some of the work of recruiting and grooming new candidates.
“It's incumbent upon us local officials and activists that have that “D” next to their name to help the state party recruit viable candidates and then stand behind them,” she said.
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The withdrawal of Griffin and Mulhern in the District 7 race diminished Democrats' hopes of cutting into the Republican majority on the county commission. Higginbotham, who now represents the largely Republican District 4, appeared vulnerable in a countywide race especially if Democrats turned out in force.
Several votes by the Plant City commissioner on divisive issues could hurt his candidacy if a strong opponent enters the race.
For instance, Higginbotham voted no on creating a domestic partner registry that would have given people in unmarried relationships legal rights to make decisions for their partners. Gay and lesbian groups, who campaigned hard for the measure, said they would not forget Higginbotham's vote on election day.
Higginbotham also supported a $6.25 million subsidy to lure Bass Pro Shops to Brandon, a move opposed by many small business people, and he voted for land use changes that will allow developers to put a big box store in the Bloomingdale area despite protests from surrounding neighborhoods.
Now, armed with $155,000 in campaign contributions and no visible Democratic opposition, Higginbotham looks hard to beat.
In other races, Republican Commissioner Ken Hagan is unopposed for the countywide District 5 seat and he's sitting on a $272,000 war chest that will likely scare off any Democratic challengers.
And in District 2, incumbent Republican Victor Crist said he's running for re-election but hasn't filed yet. No Democrats appear likely to run for the north-county seat.
That leaves Donna Lee Fore, a small businesswoman, as the only Democrat running for a commission seat. Fore has raised just $1,974 in her campaign for District 4, which includes heavily Republican neighborhoods in east and south Hillsborough. The three Republicans vying for the seat have each raised more than $39,000.
“The problem is we're not looking at who the best candidate for a seat is and encouraging that candidate,” Griffin said.
“The party splits itself and it's divide and conquer. When you're divided, you're not at top strength.”