CLEARWATER — Norm Roche and Ed Hooper are both Republicans, both skeptical about the Greenlight Pinellas mass transit plan and opposed to any tax increases.
The similarities largely stop there.
Hooper, 67, is running for the District 2 at-large seat on the Pinellas County Commission following an eight-year stint in the Florida House. He touts his Tallahassee connections as an asset that will help the county if he’s elected, and he has amassed a formidable $134,000 campaign war chest including donations from consultancy firms and attorneys.
His opponent, while the incumbent, is happy to be cast as the underdog. Something of a political outcast, Roche, 52, is frequently the lone nay vote on the county commission. He has raised just over $23,000 in political donations and, to stay in office, will have to repeat his 2010 success when the tea party surge helped him defeat a far better funded opponent.
The two face off in the countywide Republican primary election on Aug. 26, with the winner going forward to face Democrat Pat Gerard in the Nov. 4 general election.
With their positions similar on many of the main issues, much of the fiercest invective in the campaign has focused on the style and effectiveness of each candidate.
Hooper said Roche lacks the skills to win agreement from his fellow commissioners. Roche has failed to win support from fellow commissioners on compromises he proposed, including putting the Greenlight Pinellas plan on the ballot and the introduction of a stormwater fee in unincorporated Pinellas County.
“You’ve got to pick your fights and know enough to be successful in those areas that are extremely important to you,” Hooper said.
Hooper also cites a December 2013 meeting between commissioners and the state legislative delegation when Roche left early after a clash with state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, as evidence of a flawed temperament.
“Roche is an all-or-nothing guy,” Hooper said. “If he doesn’t get anything on his issue, he sometimes packs up his computer or work product and leaves the meeting.”
Roche said he left that meeting to defuse a volatile clash with Latvala.
He describes Hooper as a career politician and said the political connections Hooper boasts about will make little difference in the day-to-day operation of the county.
“Pinellas County local government is not Tallahassee and it’s not Washington, thank God,” Roche said. “We do not have backroom lobbying deals — the agenda is created by county staff.”
Roche said he stands by the votes he made during his first term, including his controversial vote against restoring fluoride to county water, which he said was the wish of a majority of residents who wrote or emailed on the issue.
“I pledged on the campaign trail in 2010 that I wasn’t politically correct, that I would stick my foot in my mouth,” he said. “I will always tell you the truth, I will always ask the tough questions and I won’t shy away from the tough challenges. As a representative of the people, I’ve done that.”
Although both candidates oppose raising the sales tax to pay for the Greenlight plan, they differ on how to improve transportation.
Hooper favors using Penny for Pinellas funds to pay for increased bus services and bus rapid transit options. That would need the support of state lawmakers, backing that Hooper said he is better placed to obtain.
He is unconvinced about the route of the 24-mile light-rail network proposed to link Clearwater to St. Petersburg.
“I can’t find anyone that wants to ride that through the middle of the county — tourists want to go to the beach,” he said.
Roche wants to expand bus routes and said that can be done within the existing Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority budget, which is paid for through property taxes, passenger fares and state and federal transportation dollars.
“If PSTA feels it needs more money, then you go to the Legislature and justify it to them,” he said.
A former paramedic and retired fire lieutenant, Hooper said he has a better grasp of the county’s emergency medical system and wants to make changes to rein in costs.
The county is still in talks with cities and fire districts on a proposed new funding formula for providing first response to 911 medical calls.
Hooper proposes that fire districts with medical units be allowed to transfer patients to hospitals and that Sunstar ambulances be stationed in other districts. Currently both the fire department and an ambulance respond to 911 medical emergencies.
“It requires fewer units, which requires fewer dollars,” he said.
But Roche worries that approach will create uneven service across the county. He favors more consolidation of the county’s 18 separate fire districts, which he said leads to duplication.
“We’re already territorial; we need to consolidate the districts, not to split it up even more,” he said.