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Coffee Talk
Business Observer Friday, Sep. 10, 2004 15 years ago

Coffee Talk (Tampa edition)

This week's items: Senate confirms Judge CovingtonMaking tardiness a habit Sweating it out in Palma Ceia?

Coffee Talk (Tampa edition)

Senate confirms Judge Covington

Second District Court of Appeal Judge Virginia Maria Hernandez Covington, colleagues and staff gathered around her desk as C-SPAN2 broadcast the Sept. 7 debate in the U.S. Senate over her nomination as a federal judge. Considering the divisiveness in the Senate, the vote to confirm her was overwhelming: Yeas, 91, nays, 0.

"I'm just thrilled and delighted," says Covington, who replaces the late U.S. District Judge Ralph Nimmons.

Covington doesn't have much time to prepare for the transition into the U.S. District Court, Middle District of Florida. Chief Judge Patricia C. Fawsett expected President George W. Bush to sign a confirmation order within days. Swearing-in could come as early as Sept. 10.

Although Covington is assigned to Jacksonville, Fawsett says the Middle District judges agreed to temporarily assign her to the Fort Myers division. U.S. District Judge John E. Steele, the division's only judge, manages a docket with 1,014 weighted lawsuits, those involving complicated legal issues or multiple defendants. That's almost a third more than any other district judge.

Fawsett is grateful the Senate acted promptly and decisively to confirm Covington's appointment.

"Our state is so lucky to have the kind of leadership that both sides of the aisle have given us," says Fawsett, who singled out Florida senators Bob Graham and Bill Nelson.

Making tardiness a habit

Coffee Talk is wondering about Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Phillip E. "Buddy" Johnson.

Johnson is the Republican appointee of Gov. Jeb Bush who took over last year after Pam Iorio quit the office to run for Tampa mayor. He took all night to count the votes in the Aug. 31 primary election. A software glitch has been blamed, though he initially blamed a server for the problem.

The slow primary count has raised concerns about Johnson's abilities, including that of winning election to the elections job in his own right in November. (See "Bye, bye Buddy?" Coffee Talk, Sept. 3-9.) His appearance at a Sept. 3 political debate with Democratic challenger Rob MacKenna did absolutely zero to bolster Coffee Talk's confidence in Johnson.

Like the primary results, Johnson was late. He forgot about the debate, which took place before the Tiger Bay Club of Tampa. OK, maybe he was having a bad week.

Then, he talked about how the ballot tabulation went. "Without the slowdown," Johnson declared, "it would have been perfect."

Without the gales, the downpours and the flooding, Hurricane Frances would have been fun, too.

Johnson sounded much less upset with the problems than the candidates who had to wait until around sunrise on Sept. 1 to find out if they'd won. Johnson patted himself on the back for not fiddling with his computers while campaigners fumed.

"It was a tough decision because everybody has come to expect speed, speed, speed," says Johnson. "I will not be concerned with speed over accuracy."

Can't we have both?

MacKenna dropped a dose of reality on Johnson by telling the assembled that Hillsborough had managed to keep the words "laughingstock" and "Florida election" welded together in the national consciousness. A computer techie at the vanquishing Eckerd Corp., MacKenna argues that a nerd is needed to run the elections office rather than a political hand.

Sweating it out in Palma Ceia?

Tampa Electric Co. employees, like many others toiling for Florida utilities, have worked overtime these past few weeks as one weather calamity after another has rocked the peninsula.

Sure, the line crews have been righting downed poles and restringing new wire. But Ross Bannister, Tampa Electric's spokesman to the world, has been logging quite a few hours himself.

That's not to say that answering inane questions from television news anchors ranks up there with dangling out of an aerial bucket. But let's give Ross some props, too.

Coffee Talk was awed by a masterful Bannister public-relations stroke a few days after Hurricane Frances left town.

With thousands of sweltering Tampa area customers losing patience with their electric monopoly's slow progress, Bannister made an off-handed comment to reporters on Sept. 7. William N. Cantrell, president of Tampa Electric and TECO Energy Inc. corporate sibling Peoples Gas System, and Gordon L. Gillette, TECO's chief financial officer, were also without electricity at their homes, according to Bannister.

That's right. Billy in Palma Ceia and Gordie on Lake Magdalene were hanging tough with their customers, sweaty armpit to sweaty armpit.

Before Coffee Talk wept for them, though, we had a follow-up question. If the juice was still out at the Cantrell and Gillette abodes, were their families really staying put there? Didn't they have alternatives? Unlike some other hot and bothered folks who couldn't find a vacant motel room or generator.

After all, Cantrell and Gillette aren't exactly farm workers living in a shack outside of Arcadia. TECO regulatory filings show Cantrell received $557,835 in salary, stock and other compensation last year, while Gillette's 2003 package was valued at $468,908.

Nothing extravagant for utility executives, we suppose, but better than most TECO shareholders have been doing lately - if they weren't shorting the stock.

Bannister hadn't responded to our telephone and e-mail messages by deadline.

Still, it was hard for Coffee Talk to picture this scene: a TECO exec fumbles for a flashlight after sunset so he can adjust his battery-powered radio and hear Bannister assure Tampa Electric customers it won't be but another week or so before their power gets turned back on.


Hillsborough County judge candidates Liz Rice and Henry Gill will face off at the Nov. 2 general election. She was identified incorrectly in the Sept. 3 issue of GCBR as the winner of that race. Rice received 48.45% of the vote, which is short of the 50% required to win a contested non-partisan election. Gill received 25.95%; Brad Souders, 25.60%.

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