For many Hillsborough County Democrats, the news that Mary Mulhern was dropping out of the District 7 County Commission seat earlier this year was sadly par for the course. Hillsborough Democrats have been ridiculed in recent years for not only being noncompetitive in several county commission and legislative races, but sometimes fail even to even prop up a live, sentient human being to run under the party label.
But instead of despairing, Seminole Heights attorney and activist Pat Kemp decided to enter the race herself, where she will likely face Republican Al Higginbotham this November.
"Voters across the county have never had an opportunity to know much about him and see what he's done," Kemp told a packed crowd who gathered early Tuesday evening at Ella's Americana Folk Art Cafe in Seminole Heights to hear her formally kickoff her campaign." I know his record, and when I saw that he might just walk into this seat I said there's absolutely no way we can let that happen!" eliciting a sustained cheer from the crowd that included prominent Democrats such as Ed Turanchik, state House candidate Sean Shaw, former City Councilwoman Linda Saul-Sena, Mulhern herself, and a host of others (including Cigar City Brewing's Joey Redner).
"We need to change this county and I think we're ready. There's a lot of energy, a lot of will to do something different," she said. "I am dead set against taxpayer handouts to create 19th-century jobs," she declared, referring specifically to the county commission's support for Bass Pro Shops in 2013. The Board approved $6.25 million to lure the retail giant to the county, with those funds going towards road work that will support additional development in the Brandon area.
Kemp bemoaned the fact that a subsidy went to an out-of-town corporation instead of looking to help out small businesses that have been in the country for decades, such as marine supply company T.A. Mahoney. And she mentioned the grassroots activism of CAN-DO, formed in the Bloomingdale area last year after resentment grew regarding a zoning change in the area that now allows for a supersized big box retailer, a 260 unit apartment complex, and a number of other retail stores in an already congested area. That group is now suing the county.
Although the entire commission approved that zoning change, Commissioner Higginbotham received the wrath of criticism last summer from local residents, since he currently represents Eastern Hillsborough in District 4.
Kemp went on to bash Higginbotham on a number of other fronts, saying he has failed to support transit issues and "been wrong on protecting the environment," referring to his lone vote opposing the transfer the 12,800-acre Cone Ranch
from the county's water department into its Environmental Land Acquisition and Protection Program or ELAPP. And she said he was wrong on voting against a domestic partner registry in the county. "He's been on the wrong side over and over again," she said, "and we've got to make sure he doesn't have the opportunity to do that over the next eight years."
But that won't be easy. Although (as Kemp notes) Higginbotham has never run countywide, he's built himself up a substantial war chest to the tune of over $164,000 (that's before reporting through the end of April). And he's basking in some of the best media coverage during his tenure in public office, after last weekend's International Indian Film Academy Awards event, where he was the most prominent lawmaker in bringing the weekend of events to Tampa Bay.
But at least Kemp provides local Democrats with a choice in a countywide seat this year, which for the local party is small but positive move forward.