Hillsborough Commissioner Higginbotham faces feisty opponent

10/05/12 Janelle Irwin
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There are only two incumbents on the Hillsborough County Commission facing opponents in this year’s election. Al Higginbotham was criticized by his opponent, Democrat Mark Nash during a Tiger Bay Club of Tampa event today at the Straz Center.

One major defeat marking Higginbotham’s term as east Hillsborough’s county commissioner is the transit referendum that failed in 2010. The district four commissioner said he spoke against the tax hike more than 80 times, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t support improvements to the county’s transit system.

“When we have a system that will benefit the entire county and community, than yes. So, train, I think, is a long way off in this community because we don’t have density.”

It’s an issue that’s hot on the minds of a lot of Hillsborough residents on both sides of the argument. Tiger Bay member Carl Zielonka thinks building rail has become an issue where opinions are formed solely on party lines – Republicans don’t want it, Democrats do. He said neither candidate gave him a good vibe about improving transit infrastructure, but he hopes the debate will come up again during the candidate’s next term.

“We have rail running all over the county. We’ve got right of ways on our highway system that were created for having rail right down the middle of it and unfortunately it’s a very expensive proposition.”

Whether a transit referendum pops up again is up to commissioners. Whether it passes is up to voters. Both transit and road improvements are key talking points for Democrat Mark Nash who is running against Higginbotham for his district four seat. He said, and most agree, that voters killed the 2010 referendum because there wasn’t a good enough plan.

“And we’re not electing the leadership at the county level – certainly in other areas of government you can go even closer to the cities and you can go up to the state – but we’re not electing the leadership that has the courage to put a plan together to make it work to explain it to the public, the pros and cons and to see it through to completion. We have a lot of talk, but we have no action and we have no results to see for that.”

Both candidates also highlighted how they’d tackle the lagging economy and both focused on creating jobs. For Nash it was important to make sure the right jobs were being created because people want careers, not jobs.

“You hear a lot of government leaders saying we should run government like a business. Well, businesses have business plans that they follow and it allows them to get from point A to point B. So, I think our County Commission needs to come up with a better plan for jobs, they need to come up with a better plan for transit and transportation and fixing our roads and where they go from there in that conversation and we need to have a better plan for growth management. So, really local government does play a key role in how communities look and how communities evolve and then they partner with their state and their federal representatives to make sure that the funding and the focus is on the plan that’s created at the local level.”

Nash’s opponent, Al Higginbotham, said he’s already been working on expanding Hillsborough’s job market.

“Hillsborough County is working right now, it’s streamlining regulations to make this a business friendly place to operate. The Mayor and I have traveled extensively over the last couple of years talking to decision makers who are involved in relocation of companies and we’re bringing businesses in. So, it’s our job to get out and tell the message and let folks know that we’re open for business and we have a business friendly environment.”

During the hour-long forum, Nash continually took digs at his opponent and even the commission as a whole. Higginbotham scolded him for it, but people in the audience, including Michelle Patty didn’t seem bothered by his critique.

“Well, I think he said what a lot of us are thinking. A lot of us have noticed over the years that there have not been any real consecration on the community. So, I think Mark Nash actually said what we were all thinking and I applaud him for having the guts to speak up today. That’s what we need now…we need to get down to facts, figures and figure out how we’re going to move this train out of here.”

Patty also asked the candidates about how they’d handle a possible Tampa Bay Rays move out of St. Pete and into Hillsborough County. Her main concern: who’s going to pay for the stadium? Patty wasn’t happy with the candidate’s answers.

“We’ve already been saddled with the Buccaneer’s stadium and as a taxpayer, we want a firm commitment that we’re not going to be on the hook again. No one made that firm committement. They just said we’ve got to look for the money, we’ve got to find the money, but they did not say specifically no, it would not be with taxpayer’s dollars and that’s what I wanted to hear.”

Another Tiger Bay member asked Nash and Higginbotham what they thought of the constitutional amendments that will appear on the statewide November ballot. There are eleven in all ranging from tax changes to abortions to allowing public funding for religious institutions. Nash opposes all of them.

“Our Tallahassee friends have done a great job at being gimmick creators to try to drive this group of voters or that group of voters to the ballot box. These eleven now, I believe they are, amendments are nothing but an attempt to confuse our voters and because we don’t have 160 people in Tallahassee that have the courage to create good policy, the put these amendments in place that help us all to shoot our own selves in our own feet.”

The amendments didn’t spark quite the same passion for Higginbotham though. He admitted he wasn’t well versed on them and some people in the audience suspected he didn’t know them at all. Tiger Bay member Carl Zielonka said he didn’t know much about any of the district four candidates, but he definitely was turned off by Higginbotham’s non-answer to the amendment question.

“I didn’t like the commissioner’s avoidance of answering how he felt on the constitutional amendments. His answer was, I love my wife and family. That’s not an answer, that’s just avoiding the issue and I didn’t appreciate that.”

Nash and Higginbotham are also facing a “no party affiliation” candidate, Joy Green. She did not attend the Tiger Bay event. The countywide district six seat will also be on the November 6th ballot. Democratic incumbent Kevin Beckner is facing Republican tea-partier Margaret Iuculano. Listen next week for details on those candidates.

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More Bribery?

Oh, goody, Higginbotham has been traveling all over the country to try and get companies to relocate here. The Tampa Tribune, the bastion of unbiased opionion (not) even admitted that 40% of the businesses who recieved taxpayer money failed to live up to their agreements. If Al believes that a good business continues to support a program that fails 40% of the time is a good business model, don't invest in a Higginbotham company and don't vote for him in November.