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Off the Bench

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  • | 6:00 p.m. September 3, 2004
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Off the Bench

Old pros, newcomers to square off in Hillsborough, Pinellas clerk finals; Tampa prosecutor Ober bests challenger.

By Francis X. Gilpin

Associate Editor

Two familiar names will fight it out in November to succeed retiring Hillsborough County Circuit Court Clerk Richard L. Ake. Across the bay, a pair of first-time seekers of elective office in Pinellas County are headed for a showdown to replace another long-time clerk heading off into the sunset, Karleen F. DeBlaker.

Veteran politician Pat Frank easily turned aside Akeis hand-picked choice, his office legal counsel Helene Marks, in the Aug. 31 Hillsborough Democratic primary for clerk.

County Commissioner Frank captured 57% of the Democratic vote, a 14% cushion over Marks that held steady for most of a slow night as appointed Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson struggled with balky computerized vote-counting equipment.

iI have a wonderful group of supporters and friends,i says Frank, 74, who served in the Florida Legislature before winning two consecutive commission elections. iWe were just doing the same thing we always do, trying to rally the troops.i

Marks, 51, a well-spoken attorney largely unknown outside the county courthouses, raised more than $144,000 and picked up a slew of Ake-brokered endorsements from local Democrats such as Sheriff Cal Henderson and county Commission Chairman Thomas Scott. But it was not enough to overcome Frankis name recognition.

By tying herself so closely to Ake, Marks lacked the ability to criticize the antiquated procedures that other candidates saw in the clerkis office and repeatedly vowed to abolish.

Frank, who collected $65,100 in cash for the primary, passed up her final two years on the county commission to run for the $137,351-a-year clerkis vacancy. She meets a one-time colleague Nov. 2.

Former Commissioner Chris Hart III gained some redemption in this yearis Republican primary. Hart took 51% of the vote in a three-way race with political unknowns Steve Hall and Bob Zegota.

Hart, 59, served two terms as a countywide commissioner from 1994 to 2002, helping his profile in the clerkis contest. But the daughter of Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Betty Castor defeated him two years ago when he tried to stay on the commission after flirting with congressional and mayoral runs.

iI went out and ran as if Iid never run countywide before,i Hart says.

The Hillsborough Republican clerkis primary was bitter at times. Zegota, viewed as a proxy for Tampa businessman Ralph Hughes, got under Hartis skin by questioning the eventual nomineeis ability to make a living off the public payroll.

As of Sept. 1 at noon, Hart says he hadnit received congratulations from Zegota or Hughes. But Hart told GCBR that Hall has endorsed him and the two men plan to wave Hart signs at a downtown Tampa courthouse as judicial employees leave work for the day.

Ake staffers were a strong presence in the Marks campaign and are going to be looking to curry favor with another potential boss as the general election approaches.

In a presidential election year, Frank says she will try not to be dragged into a partisan fight with Hart, who wears his Republican credentials proudly.

iI donit want to be swept up in that,i Frank told GCBR. iFortunately, Iive had a lot of Republican supporters. Iive always gotten the swing voters.

iI often vote with Republicans on fiscal issues and with the Democrats on social issues. Thatis where the independents are.i

Registered Democrats still outnumber Republicans by more than 40,000 in Hillsborough. Almost 104,000 voters are registered with no party affiliation.

If anything, Hart says he will downplay his partisan views. Far down the ticket, the overriding issue in the clerkis election is who can improve the office operation, according to Hart. iThe service to the customer has to be apolitical,i he says. iAny other way is not the professional way to do it.i

In the Pinellas clerkis primary, the top money-magnet also faltered at the ballot box. Largo certified public accountant Ken Burke stopped Clearwater Mayor Brian Aungstis attempt to move up to the $135,222-a-year county post.

Burke, 44, chairman of the St. Petersburg Collegeis board of trustees, took in cash donations of $61,041 before the Aug. 31 balloting. Aungst easily topped that with $116,654.

But Burke prevailed with Pinellas Republicans and credited a network of old friends for his defeat of the better-known as well as better-funded Aungst.

iI know it sounds hackneyed, but it was the grassroots,i says Burke. iIt was heartwarming to have people youive grown up with call and ask what they could do. People who hadnit worked in a political campaign before.i

Aungst, 50, a public relations executive for the countyis dominant cable television provider, Bright House Networks LLC, couldnit be contacted by GCBR.

During the campaign, the mayor had expressed confidence that his cityis troubles with the construction of a new bridge between downtown and Clearwater Beach wouldnit harm his candidacy. However, it couldnit have helped.

While Aungstis bid was praised by a number of politicians, including U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis, R-Tarpon Springs, and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, Burke picked up endorsements from local Realtors, firefighter and police unions, and the St. Petersburg Times.

Burkeis Democratic opponent in November is health care consultant Carolyn iCarriei Wadlinger. Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno will headline a fundraiser for Wadlingeris campaign later this month on Sand Key.

The Republican nominee says female candidates are doing well in 2004. iItis going to be a tough election,i Burke told GCBR.

The Grand Old Party holds a roughly 10,000-voter edge on the Pinellas rolls, with about 104,500 registered as independents.

Back in Tampa, State Attorney Mark Ober trounced one of his former assistants in a universal primary where all voters could participate. With no Democratic opposition, Ober gets a second term, barring a long-shot legal challenge from a write-in candidate who was flummoxed by the qualifying process back in July.

The Hillsborough state attorney pulled out to an early lead as the first returns trickled in to his victory party in Ybor City around 8 p.m. and he didnit look back as he won 76% of the Republican vote.

iI never pound my chest,i Ober, 53, told GCBR. iBut Iim overwhelmed by the support Iive gotten.i

Four years ago, Ober decided to take on two-term Democrat Harry Lee Coe III. As a state investigation into Coeis gambling activities opened, Coe killed himself, prompting others to jump into the election contest. But Ober, a long-time criminal trial attorney, came out on top.

Shortly after taking office, Ober says he demoted one of his drug prosecutors, Robin Fernandez Fuson, who challenged him this year for $143,363-a-year state attorneyis job.

Although polling fewer than 30,000 votes out of more than 125,000 cast, Fuson promises to be back in 2008. iI had a blast,i Fuson told GCBR. iI didnit have enough money to reach out to the Democratic voter. Weire going to be better at fundraising next time.i

Fuson, 46, says he is troubled by Oberis dependence on criminal defense lawyers for campaign fundraising. iItis a little disturbing that the defense bar raises all of the money for the state attorney to get re-elected,i he says.

Ober amassed a campaign treasury of more than $260,800, dwarfing Fusonis $69,400-plus.

Another run by Fuson in four years isnit Oberis biggest concern right now. iWeive got a lot to do before then,i Ober says. iWeire going to continue to work hard protecting the people of Hillsborough County.i


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