by Mitch Perry
[Note: This is an updated version of a story that originally ran in Political Animal Jan. 30]
Tampa City Council member Mary Mulhern surprised the local political establishment last week by dropping out of the race for the Hillsborough County Commission District 7 seat because of health concerns.
Mulhern has been living with multiple sclerosis for over two decades. She says she’s always been able to live with the ailment, but the demands of working on council, running for a countywide seat and being a mom to a teenage son have proven to be too demanding.
The councilmember made the decision just days after turning 55. She said she made the decision after several months of consideration with her doctors and her husband, Cam Dilley. She says it’s nothing serious, but the issue that has always plagued her with MS has been fatigue, and that’s been compounded by her increased duties of late.
“I’m good with a full-time job and parenting, but trying to run a countywide campaign is just too demanding,” she says.
Her decision is a blow to the Hillsborough County Democratic Party, which a year ago was enjoying a rare moment of having two strong candidates in the race to succeed a term-limited Mark Sharpe on the Commission. School board member April Griffin had also entered the District 7 Democratic primary, but dropped out last year.
That leaves Republican Al Higginbotham sitting pretty at this point. The District 4 Commissioner is dominating the financial race for the District 7 seat, having raised $154,791 so far (Mulhern had raised $40,385).
“First off, my genuine and sincere thoughts are for Mary,” Higginbotham told CL last Friday. “My first concern is for her, and whatever my family can do to help her family, my door is open.”
Griffin says she has no interest in re-entering the race, or in campaigning for anything right now. “I’m going to do my job that I was elected to,” she says of her duties on the school board, which she chairs until her term expires in November.
“It’s disappointing because I hate to see anybody walk into a seat unopposed,” she said abut the fact that Higginbotham has no competition for the countywide seat. Add the fact that two other Republicans on the board — Victor Crist and Ken Hagan — also are running without substantial opposition, and it’s happy days again for the Hillsborough GOP.
“We’re talking to a few candidates now about filing for that seat,” says Tim Heberlein, vice chair of operations for the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee. He says the party is also talking to donors and grassroots supporters about potential candidates for the other seats, but admits “it’s a little late in the game for that.”
Mulhern expresses regret about leaving the race now, and says if she weren’t serving on City Council she could probably commit to a full-fledged run for Commission. But doing both simply isn’t an option.
A native of the Midwest, Mulhern worked for over a decade as an administrator for the Art Institute of Chicago, before becoming the owner of a fine arts management company. After moving to Tampa she served as visual art critic with CL (then called Weekly Planet).
Her first run for office was for County Commission in 2006, a race she lost to Rose Ferlita. Her narrow victory over incumbent Shawn Harrison for City Council in 2007 was considered a major political upset at the time, given Harrison’s advantages in fundraising and name recognition.
In her seven years on council, she has been the preeminent progressive voice, perhaps in all of Tampa Bay area politics. During her first term she was joined by Democrats John Dingfelder and Linda Saul-Sena on many key issues, but always lacked a fourth vote to change policy.
During the 2011 campaign, she drew two challengers, Scott Strepina and Sue Long, both of whom attacked her for her lone opposition to a ban on panhandling by the homeless that took up an enormous amount of the council’s time. But she ended up beating both opponents soundly in the primary, getting the 50 percent-plus necessary to negate a runoff.
She was also a thorn in the Buckhorn administration’s side when it came to the Tampa Police Department’s request for $2 million in federal funds to pay for surveillance cameras to be employed for the Republican National Convention in the summer of 2012.
A few weeks after the convention, when the camera issue was revisited, several of Mulhern’s colleagues became frustrated when the Buckhorn administration refused to send any high-ranking officials to discuss the plans. But because the council had lost its authority to control the cameras by that point, their words were in vain, leading Mulhern to admonish them that they should have followed her lead in rejecting the cameras.
Mulhern is term-limited out of council a year from now. She says she’s not certain what she’ll do at that time, but says running for office again next year or in 2016 is definitely a possibility. She also says she could return to the private sector. But for now, “I have to take care of myself and my family.”
Meanwhile, the man she would have run against has had to deal with health challenges of his own. Commissioner Higginbotham suffered a spinal cord injury in 1995, which requires him to use two hand canes to get around.
“Time is a great healer for the body,” he says. “And Mary will be back front and center.”