Pinellas County

David, In The Form Of A Republican Neophyte, Takes On A Democratic Goliath

PINELLAS COUNTY, FL. – Debra Buschman settled into a chair in the studio of WTAN radio in Clearwater, glanced at the microphone mounted on the end of a bifold metal stalk and shrouded in a black, foam rubber pop filter, and settled her notes on the desk in front of her.

“I haven’t ever done this before,” she said.

The 53-year-old mother of four from Palm Harbor, known to all as “Debbie”, was about to conduct her first broadcast interview since announcing her candidacy for the Pinellas County Commission.  She has filed papers to run against well-known incumbent Pat Gerard for the Second District seat.

The district is one of three “at-large” districts that are part of the seven-member group (formally known as the Board of County Commissioners). It makes policy and provides oversight to a government that is handling nearly $3 billion a year these days. Because it is designated “at-large”, winning the district will require campaigning from one end of the county to the other, a distance of 38 miles north to south and 15 east to west, at its widest. 

Pinellas is the second smallest county in Florida, but its residents will often say that it is a really big county, especially when you constantly have to go from north to south, campaigning and fighting the county’s notorious traffic. (As long as 30 years ago frustrated residents would paste bumper stickers on their cars reading “Pray for Me I Drive US 19.)

There are about 700,000 voters, divided about equally between Republicans like her, Democrats like Gerard and those who are neither. Two at-large commission seats were elected last year, and in each the two candidates split more than 539,000 votes, the Democrats eking wins in both. 

Each winning campaign cost in the six figures. Janet Long, the incumbent Democrat in District One, spent nearly $200,000. Buschman is considering a campaign budget of a quarter million.

She feels, however, ready for the challenge. Her background is in public service. Having worked for the Public Defender in the Sixth Judicial Circuit and now for the Pinellas School Board in a non-classroom function, she is serving her third term on the Palm Harbor Special Fire Control board. In that position she has gained experience with budgeting and issue management, and it has given her a vision of the way a public service agency should run.

“They rally behind each other,” she says of the 69 staff of the four-station district. “They support each other.”

Like other special taxing districts in Florida, this one runs on revenues generated by a tax charged just to the 62,000 or so residents of Palm Harbor. This year the fire district’s budget is nearly $13 million.  The community, the 20-square miles of which comprise most of the northern third of Pinellas County, is an unincorporated area.

That means it is not a city or a town. It has no mayor or council. There is a local community services agency, but the region ultimately is governed by the county commission, to which she seeks to be elected.

Buschman and her family have lived in Palm Harbor for almost 20 years. She is a native of Southern California who married into the Mississippi Valley and then came here largely for the weather. She earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of South Florida.

She has served on the boards of the Pace Center for Girls and the North Pinellas Community Action Council. She is a Certified District Official and holds several certificates from USF in aspects of public management like diversity and post-crisis leadership.

“My experience working for the State of Florida and the Pinellas County school system has given me a first-hand perspective and helped prepare me for the role that I seek to serve in as Pinellas County Commissioner,” she said in a campaign statement.

“I have also had the privilege to work with elected local, state, and national officials throughout Pinellas County on issues such as mental health, substance use disorders, mentoring, and public safety.”

She does have a powerful card to play in her campaign against Gerard: she is firmly in favor of term limits for members of the county commission, a hot-button issue that is gathering ever more steam as the days speed toward the coming election. She and another Republican who are seeking county commission seats in the next two election cycles have stated firmly that they will support term limits.

“I am for term limits on the Pinellas County Commission,” she declared during the radio interview, promising to be both an advocate for them and a vote in their favor when the time comes.

Gerard is unlikely to echo that commitment.

It’s a complicated issue that, if Buschman pushes right, could draw a stark contrast between her and Gerard and focus her campaign.

It has been nearly a quarter-century since the voters of Pinellas County overwhelmingly chose to place term limits on their county commissioners, and they still don’t have them. The reasons have to do with everything from a marathon of expensive and unsuccessful court litigation to the way the county’s charter revision process works.

Buschman says that she wants to be a voice for Pinellas people who may not feel as if they are being listened to, a condition some say is all too common around the board.  The term limits debate will be one in which she can speak prominently for the many in Pinellas who feel a certain sense of disenfranchisement over this issue, and others.

First, however, she must become a county commissioner, and that will not be easy. Gerard’s photo on the county board webpage displays a quiet grin that a complacent Goliath might have worn watching David stride across the Valley of Elah toward him.

She is a favorite of the progressives in the county and is, by far, the wealthiest of the seven commissioners. In 2018, a Clearwater businesswoman sought to challenge her but suddenly disappeared from political sight and left Gerard unopposed.

Given Gerard’s stature among Pinellas progressives, the coming contest might look like the same sort of foregone conclusion that kept Saul cowering in his tent while David was choosing his five smooth stones from a riverbed. Then again, amid the quarreling winds that have whipped across the political landscape in recent months, this fight might also turn out to depend less on pure numerical strength and more on wits and guile.

And we all know what happened to Goliath.

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