TAMPA Two votes, taken a month apart, could be the most important of Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham’s political career.
Higginbotham, a Republican preparing for his first countywide contest in 2014, voted against a domestic partner registry on Jan. 24. The registry, which failed on a 3-4 vote, would have given residents in unmarried relationships certain legal rights to make decisions for their partners.
Then on Feb. 20, Higginbotham voted with the majority to give a $6.25 million county subsidy to developers in order to lure retail giant Bass Pro Shops to Brandon. Democrat Kevin Beckner was the only no vote.
Both issues were hard-fought and the final outcomes alienated key voting groups. The domestic partner registry vote was seen as a slap at the gay community. But straight people couples who choose not to marry were also affected by the vote.
Higginbotham is a three-time winner in his conservative, east Hillsborough District 4. He has deep support from the agriculture community, developers and Republican Party activists, thanks to his former job as county GOP chairman.
Nancy Watkins, one of the county’s top Republican fundraisers, has signed on with Higginbotham’s campaign. Last month, he was endorsed by perhaps Florida’s most popular Republican, former Gov. Jeb Bush.
But seeking a contested countywide commission seat promises to be a far bigger challenge for Higginbotham than running in his conservative district.
“It’s a different ballgame when you get into a general election race because you have to have more than Republicans to win,” said Republican political consultant April Schiff. “You have to either appeal to NPAs (no party affiliation) or to Democrats to pull off a win in a countywide race.”
Hillsborough County, once thought to be reliably red, is now a tossup with Democrats gaining in recent elections. President Barack Obama has carried the county two elections in a row and Democrats now hold three of the five state constitutional offices.
Registered Democratic voters in Hillsborough outnumber Republicans by more than 65,000. However, Democrats have a history of not turning out in significant numbers in nonpresidential election years.
“But he’s still going to have a challenge winning a countywide race because he’s an ultraconservative and the recent votes he’s taking doesn’t look like he’s trying to appease anybody,” she said.
Former county Democratic Party chairwoman Pat Kemp agreed, saying the fact Higginbotham is from east Hillsborough will likely hurt him with urban voters. She cited the poor showing in November of former Republican county commissioner and state Sen. Ronda Storms, also from east Hillsborough, in the countywide property appraiser race.
Two seasoned Democratic politicians, school board Chairwoman April Griffin and Tampa Councilwoman Mary Mulhern, have also filed to run for the District 7 commission seat.
Griffin is serving her second term on the school board and has been active in Democratic campaigns. Mulhern ran for a countywide commission seat in 2006, losing to Republican Rose Ferlita. In 2007, Mulhern was elected to a city council district seat and won a citywide seat in 2011.
Griffin declined to criticize Higginbotham on his Bass Pro and domestic partner registry votes. But she pointed out that she had been honored by Equality Florida for leading the effort to add gender identity to the school system’s non-discrimination policy.
“I’ve heard a lot of things from various people who are not happy with (Higginbotham’s) votes,” Griffin said. “As far as the debates, I’m sure it will come up.”
As for Bass Pro Shops, Griffin said she would have “liked to see the developers bring a little more money to the table.” Overall, though, Griffin said Bass Pro will be a plus for the county.
Mulhern, who voted with the rest of the city council to create a domestic partner registry, criticized Higginbotham on both the votes, saying they were a deterrent to economic development. She pointed out that a number of Fortune 500 companies include domestic partners of employees in their insurance coverage.
“It’s another negative in our efforts to be a globally competitive economic region,” Mulhern said, “and it is unfortunate that they are not listening to other leaders in the community like the Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Corp.”
“I think people who don’t support it, it’s going to cost them at the ballot box,” Smith said. “Not only gay people vote, but fair-minded people in the county vote. They are outraged that this hasn’t’ moved forward.”
In voting against the registry, Higginbotham said his Christian faith prevented him from expanding the “privileges and responsibilities to those outside the marriage relationship.”
“I always try to vote and take the emotion out of it,” Higginbotham said recently. “Some people will look at social issues. My hope is they vote based on my conduct in office and my stands on ethics.”
Regarding Bass Pro, Higginbotham said he was undecided until the day of the vote. He said he listened intently as fellow Republican Commissioner Mark Sharpe, formerly an opponent of the subsidy, switched to supporter, in part because the money would be used for roads.
“Mark’s comments reinforced what I was thinking: We’re in the business of building infrastructure,” Higginbotham said. “It’s too bad it had an anchor tenant tied to it.”
Small business owners saw it differently. Leaving the meeting after the vote, some said it showed commissioners always back the guy with the biggest checkbook.
Tom Mahoney, owner of a marine service store and one of the leaders of the opposition to Bass Pro, said Higginbotham lost the trust of small business people by telling them he was against the subsidy but then setting up a meeting between about 20 business owners and an attorney for the developer of the project.
“He came to this whole situation playing both sides,” said Mahoney. “As we started getting closer to this we started referring to him as the flip-flopper.”
Higginbotham denied he was trying to line up support among small businesses for the Bass subsidy so he would have an “easy vote.”
“They can think that, but it was a vote I worked hard on and studied and tried to understand both sides of the issue,” he said.