TAMPA — Candidate Al Higginbotham enjoys the name recognition and campaign donor list that come with winning three elections and serving for eight years on the Hillsborough County Commission.
Add to those advantages the positive exposure Higginbotham, a Republican, recently garnered by helping bring the Bollywood AwardsOscars extravaganza to Tampa in April. Tampa was an unlikely host city, but Higginbotham’s connections in the county’s Indian-American community and his willingness to fly to China to help lure the awards ceremony were crucial in winning the event.
Now, Higginbotham is entering a more-formidable arena — leaving his secure and conservative east Hillsborough district to seek a countywide commission seat. Other commissioners have made the same jump successfully, and Higginbotham has to be considered the favorite, observers say.
Still, in the past month, two Democrats with extensive political resumes have jumped into the District 7 race.
Pat Kemp, a lawyer, former county Democratic Party chair and former candidate for the state House, filed papers in mid-April.
Two weeks later, former political consultant Mark Nash entered the contest. A Brandon native, Nash challenged Higginbotham for the District 4 seat in 2012 and was soundly beaten. Nash also helped manage Democratic Commissioner Kevin Beckner’s successful countywide run in 2008 — a race in which Beckner defeated an incumbent Republican.
On the Republican side, Robin Lester and Don Kruse are challenging Higginbotham in the Aug. 26 party primary election.
That’s a lot of people lining up to challenge an experienced politician with $134,000 available in his campaign war chest.
One reason Democrats sense Higginbotham is vulnerable is he no longer enjoys the protection of his reliably Republican district. This time, he will be running in a county that went for Democrat Barack Obama in the last two presidential elections and where Democratic registered voters outnumber Republicans by 61,000.
“Just the overall makeup of the county as a whole leads them to believe they may have an opportunity,” said April Schiff, a Republican political consultant. “If you look at his current district versus the entire county, it’s a whole different picture.”
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But Kemp and Nash can call on more than demographics as they seek to dethrone a heavily favored candidate. Higginbotham has taken a number of positions that have alienated one interest group or another.
In February 2013, Higginbotham cast a vote in favor of a $6.25 million county subsidy to developers in order to bring a Bass Pro Shops store to Brandon. The move was opposed by local owners of boat repair, sporting goods and other outdoors shops.
In April, a majority of the commission refused to send a letter to the county’s local legislative delegation backing small craft brewers in their battle to kill a bill backed by big beer distributors. The bill, which did not pass, would have required craft brewers who brew more than 2,000 kegs a year to sell their product to distributors. They would then have had to buy the beer back to sell in their tasting rooms.
And, as Kemp pointed out, Higginbotham sits on the county Public Transportation Commission, which has hampered efforts by the car-for-hire companies Uber and Lyft to operate here. Critics of the transportation commission, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, have touted Uber and Lyft as exactly the kind of new-wave companies the county needs to attract more young professionals and entrepreneurs.
“He has a very bad record of listening to communities and listening to local businesses,” Kemp said. “With the kind of decisions he’s made, we’re not going to attract the cutting-edge jobs.”
In fairness to Higginbotham, he was not at the meeting where the craft brewing legislation was discussed. He said he would have supported the letter opposing the legislation if he had been.
Higginbotham has not spoken publicly for or against Uber and Lyft. He said he does have concerns about the level of insurance the companies provide to drivers and customers.
As for Bass Pro, Higginbotham said he was one of the few commissioners who met with small-business people to hear their concerns prior to the vote. After weighing the issue, he became convinced the Bass Pro store would not hurt small businesses and might actually help them.
“Independent of what Bass provided, there was documentation that small businesses with similar services would benefit,” Higginbotham said.
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Nash criticized Higginbotham for actively campaigning against a 2010 referendum that would have raised the sales tax by a penny to construct road and transit projects, including a light rail line. The referendum failed and the county is again looking for a strategy to deal with traffic gridlock.
“With people throughout this county having a difficult time getting from point to point, you’ve got to remember Al Higginbotham was a no vote on the transit referendum,” Nash said. “He was more interested in winning an election in 2010.”
Higginbotham does not apologize for opposing what he pointed out was a 14 percent increase in the sales tax during an economic downturn. He also criticized the plan the county put forth for spending the tax money as confusing and opaque.
Other issues that could hurt Higginbotham in the election include his vote against a county domestic partner registry, which would have allowed residents in unmarried relationships to make legal decisions for their partners.
Passage of the domestic partner registry was a key issue for gay and lesbian voters.
Higginbotham drew fire from those groups when he said his Christian faith prevented him from expanding “the unique and special status” of conventional marriage.
Now, however, Higginbotham claims his religion was not the deciding factor in voting against the registry. Rather it was because the commissioners were being asked to vote on an idea without a concrete policy document before them.
“Too often this board votes on issues that are not clearly defined,” he said. “That leads to problems down the line.”
Despite Higginbotham’s controversial votes, the challengers face an uphill battle, political observers say. For one thing, Democratic voters turn out in lower numbers than Republicans in off-year, non-presidential elections. That’s a major drawback for Kemp or Nash because they don’t have the name recognition of candidates at the top of the ticket like the probable Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Charlie Crist.
“If I’m on the Democratic ticket and I’m down the ticket, people are going to go down the ballot and say, ‘I don’t know these people,’” said Scott Paine, a government professor at the University of Tampa. “So the Democrats are going to vote for Democrats. If the Democrats don’t show up in significant numbers, that hurts.”
Paine said Higginbotham’s controversial votes may be known to relatively small groups of people who keep up with such things, but most people don’t know or care.
“If the knowledge of it doesn’t already exist, the ability to develop a negative perception of a sitting commissioner is going to be expensive,” Paine said. “It’s going to require many exposures to that negative message for a significant number of voters, and that comes down to dollars.”
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Though Kemp made an impressive showing by raising $19,353 soon after announcing her candidacy, that amount is still dwarfed by Higginbotham’s current campaign fund total of $134,000. Nash has yet to report any campaign contributions.
Kemp and Nash are not likely to get money from outside the county or state, so they’ll have to lean hard on local donors, said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.
“In an off-year election, especially in swing states like Florida, the top-of-the-ticket races are usually where the money and outside interests go,” MacManus said. “So the local candidates are often starved and they have to rely on local contributors and people who feel passionately about the party at all levels.”
And though he is not as well-known as Charlie Crist or Gov. Rick Scott, Higginbotham still has a big lead over the Democrats in name recognition. His efforts on behalf of the Bollywood awards bolstered him in that regard.
“The newspapers are not writing about Pat Kemp doing great things in the community like they’re writing about Al Higginbotham,” Schiff, the Republican consultant, said. “That’s because of his standing in the community.”
To overcome Higginbotham’s advantages, Kemp or Nash have to out-work the opposition forces at the grass-roots level. Paine, the University of Tampa professor, pointed to the success Obama’s campaign achieved by mining voter databases, then sending campaign workers to personally visit those voters. Paine calls it “personalizing the contact.”
“What the Obama campaign demonstrated is that it’s not about phone banks, it’s not about inundating someone’s mailbox with targeted mail,” he said. “It’s someone you work with or you know giving you a personal message — not a phone call — that really affects turnout and wins a grass-roots campaign.”
MacManus agreed, saying the Democratic candidates need to go “door to door and local call to local call.”
“Local people talking to local people tends to generate more interest,” MacManus said. “It is imperative in midterm elections when most of the media attention and outside money goes to the top of the ticket.”