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A Transplanted Volunteer

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  • | 6:00 p.m. September 24, 2004
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A Transplanted Volunteer

Pinellas clerk candidate Carrie Wadlinger says she's so into systems management that she'd rather shop at Office Depot than Dillard's.

By Francis X. Gilpin

Associate Editor

Carolyn A. Wadlinger, the Democratic nominee for Pinellas County circuit court clerk, used to visit relatives in Florida when she was a kid. One of the highlights of any trip from her native Pennsylvania was a stop at Webb's City, a now-shuttered drug store that more often resembled a small amusement park in downtown St. Petersburg.

Carrie Wadlinger, 59, says she fondly reminisces about the store's famous mermaids and nickel ice cream cones during campaign appearances. An Oldsmar resident who registered to vote here three years ago, Wadlinger wants everybody to know that she is not just another snowbird oblivious to the Tampa Bay area's quirky past.

But the reaction she gets on the stump surprises her. "When I tell people about that, half of the audience doesn't even know about Webb's City," says Wadlinger.

James Earl "Doc" Webb, founder of the self-proclaimed "world's most unusual drug store," might be rolling over in his grave. But the constant influx of transplants suggests Wadlinger's long-shot run for county clerk may not be as quixotic as it would first appear.

Her opponent, law office administrator Kenneth P. Burke, also came to Pinellas as a youngster. But he stayed. Burke touted those hometown ties in upsetting Clearwater Mayor Brian Aungst in the Republican primary last month.

Burke, 44, of Largo, has raised $63,641 in cash through the middle of this month for his maiden run for public office. Wadlinger has managed to collect only $15,100 for hers.

But both political newcomers have had to dig into their own pockets, too.

Wadlinger, whose net worth is $2.8 million after she sold her interest in a Cleveland health care consultancy four years ago, has had to loan her campaign $30,000. The Burke campaign had to borrow $19,000 from the candidate in the days leading up to the Aug. 31 primary voting.

Since settling into an $840,000 house she had built in East Lake Woodlands, Wadlinger says she has immersed herself in grassroots Democratic politics. She participated in two earlier campaigns and was buoyed by the experience, despite their lack of electoral success.

Wadlinger volunteered for former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno's 1992 gubernatorial effort and ended up Pinellas chair for the campaign. "I admired her for what she stood for," she says of Reno, who lost in the Democratic primary. "As a result, Janet has become a good friend of mine."

Reno was to appear at a Wadlinger event earlier this month, but stayed in South Florida due to the approaching threat of Hurricane Ivan.

Last fall, Wadlinger signed up for ex-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's presidential run. Dean became famous for, among other things, his "meet-ups," gatherings of supporters arranged entirely over the Internet. Wadlinger hosted several for the candidate's north Pinellas volunteers.

Now she is the candidate. Unlike in Hillsborough County, neither Pinellas clerk candidate is a household name in local politics. But Wadlinger says she has the superior qualifications, acquired away from county courthouses.

Wadlinger, who holds an undergraduate accounting degree and a master's in business administration, says she was chief executive of the biggest private psychiatric hospital in Ohio. After overseeing a sale of the hospital, which employed 670 and operated with an annual budget of $150 million, Wadlinger went to work for an adviser on the transaction, the accounting and consulting firm KPMG LLP.

In 1989, Wadlinger struck out on her own, even though she was on a track to become a partner in KPMG's medical-consulting practice. Over 11 years, she and a business partner built their health-care advisory service into a multimillion-dollar company while picking up clients such as the Cleveland Clinic.

That background is quite relevant to what needs to be done at the Pinellas clerk's office, Wadlinger contends.

According to Wadlinger, for instance, the shift of court funding from counties to largely the state has caused user fees to jump by 64%. That will entail monitoring installment payments from citizens who cannot come up with the higher fees all at once. She doubts many Florida clerks, including the current Pinellas one, are equipped for the new task.

"All I can say is, that's what I did," Wadlinger says. "I was in finance at hospitals."

The judicial administration for Pinellas and Pasco counties is pushing for more electronic commerce over the Internet to shorten the lines at the clerk's office. That won't be easy with a computer system that used to be state-of-the-art - in the 1970s.

"The customer service isn't - I don't want to say that it's bad because I don't think it is," says Wadlinger. "But can it be improved? Absolutely."

Wadlinger says her MBA study emphasized a systems approach, which helped her convert the Cleveland Clinic's accounts-receivable program for Y2K as a consultant and will help her update outmoded information technology as Pinellas clerk.

"I'm the crazy kind of person that shops at Office Depot, without ever going to Dillard's," Wadlinger says with a smile. "I see things in the clerk's office that a lot of people don't see."

Only one of retiring Clerk Karleen F. De Blaker's offices has a domestic violence counselor, according to Wadlinger. "We should have one in each location, not just the one downtown," she says.

Wadlinger says there also isn't enough Spanish-speaking counter help, causing longer lines for those who cannot converse in English.

"I've often been told that I think like a Republican and act like a Democrat, or think with your mind and rule with your heart," says Wadlinger. "And I don't think I'm alone."

Republicans hold a 10,000-voter registration advantage in Pinellas, though Wadlinger says more Democrats have been signing up lately. More than 127,500 residents, about 23% of the electorate, are affiliated with neither major party.

"I think there's a whole lot of people in the middle," says Wadlinger.

Still, Wadlinger is reaching out to traditional Democratic constituencies, including African-Americans and young people. She also has been endorsed by the West Central Florida Federation of Labor and the Florida chapter of the National Organization for Women.

She isn't discouraging Republicans from crossing over, either. "I'm not interested in just Democrats voting," she says. "I want all of the citizens of the county to vote for me because I'm the better candidate."

Wadlinger makes such boasts with a little hesitation. She's lunched with Burke, chairman of St. Petersburg College's board of trustees, and they've pledged to each other that they will stay positive on the campaign trail.

"I think I can bring not only the credentials and the qualifications, but I can bring something new," says Wadlinger. She says her volunteer work in places like the streets of Cleveland gave her a different slant on providing quality service to the public than others confined to executive suites might get.

"There's one thing to say you've been chairman - and I don't want to speak against my opponent - but there's certainly a difference between serving as a board chairman, approving a budget versus delivering meals to shut-ins on Christmas Day in below-freezing degree weather. I've cleaned up parks. I've sat underneath the bridge with homeless people, brought them soup from the soup kitchen."


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