NEW PORT RICHEY — Four years ago when he was a political novice who rarely spoke to the press, Henry Wilson stunned political observers by ousting incumbent Michael Cox despite being outspent 18 to one.
Now Wilson has the power of incumbency. But in Pasco’s 4th county commission district, that doesn’t guarantee re-election. Just ask Cox — or his predecessor, Steve Simon.
“It’s actually more difficult to run as an incumbent,” Wilson said. “Last time I ran I wasn’t a sitting commissioner, so I was able to be more places than I am now.”
This year Mike Wells is the one hoping to oust the incumbent, and with no Democrats in the race, the election will be decided in the Aug. 26 primary, which is open to all registered voters.
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Wells, 42, spent 17 years as an area manager for Enterprise Rent-A-Car. He now is a real estate agent.
The son a former county commissioner and current property appraiser, the Pasco County native inherited his father’s name and political aspirations. He has raised nearly twice as much money as Wilson.
“Obviously, I grew up in a politically active household,” he said. “I’ve been interested in politics from the beginning, helping my dad put up signs. I’ve witnessed how one commissioner can make a difference. And that’s really what I’m going to bring to the commission.”
He said Wilson hasn’t done enough in his first term to warrant re-election. “When I look at the difference between him and me, it comes down to leadership,” Wells said. “I talk to my friends and people in my neighborhood, and they don’t know who their commissioner is. The county should know Mr. Wilson after four years.”
Wells criticized Wilson for acknowledging he had misgivings last year after he voted against raising the gas tax to pay for road maintenance and construction. Wilson said he had second thoughts but is just as staunchly opposed to the gas tax hike today as he was a year ago.
Wells also pointed to Wilson’s vote against hiring Michele Baker as county administrator. And Wilson voted against Baker’s $170,000-a-year contract, which includes a $10,000 raise this summer if she receives an above-average review.
Wells said he told Baker she has his support. “She has a good vision. She’s definitely hiring the folks she needs to put in place to help move the county forward,” he said.
Wilson told members of the Republican Executive Committee he won’t support giving Baker the full raise, even though he thinks she is doing a great job.
“I give her lots of credit for what she’s done in a year,” Wilson said. “I was asked about her $10,000 raise, so I answered. I just think she should get the same step raise as all the other employees. That would be five percent.”
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Wilson has been a champion for county employees since he was elected. He was the first commissioner to voice support for giving across-the-board pay raises last year, and he was involved heavily in efforts that helped reduce the county’s health insurance costs by nearly a $1 million. He spends one day a month working alongside county employees and has hit nearly each department — including the sewage treatment plant.
Pasco County used to have one of the worst recycling programs in the state. Wilson worked with trash haulers and county administrators to overhaul the program, replacing blue bags with a sticker that can be placed on any container. In one year, Pasco now has the third highest participation rate in Florida, behind only Hillsborough and Lee counties. “I think that’s quite an accomplishment,” he said.
He was the first commissioner to publicly oppose plans for a private, elevated toll road on State Road 54. So Wilson disputes Wells’ assertion he isn’t a leader. Sometimes a leader is on the losing end of a 4-1 vote, he said.
“I’m not a politician. I’m about relationship building between me and the people in the county,” he said. “I’ve raised more money this time than last time. There’s a stigma out there that if you’re an incumbent you’re supposed to raise $150,000. I’m more concerned about doing the job. I don’t want to change who I am while I’m in here.”
He said his challenger is trying to capitalize on his father’s familiar name — a charge that causes Wells to bristle.
“I’m proud to be his son. I’m proud of his accomplishments. ... But this is about me,” Wells said.