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Observations: One Sharpe guy

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image Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe with Bill Hodges, Observer News columnist and host of the Tampa Bay Community Network television program Spotlight on...

In my book, any politician that draws the ire of his own party scores extra points.


I like Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe. In my book, any politician that draws the ire of his own party scores extra points. Anyone who tries to tell you that either Republicans or Democrats have all of the answers is lying to you. Commissioner Sharpe, who generally bills himself as a conservative Republican, has of late pointed out the flaws in his own party with a zest nearly equal to his pointing out the flaws of the other party.

Commissioner Sharpe represents 1.2 million constituents, nearly half a million more than a member of the U.S. House of Representatives does. Despite that, he works hard to be connected to that vast and diverse mass, most visibly with flurries of Twitter and Facebook posts. And, unlike many elected officials, he doesn’t merely post and run. When people sling their inevitable arrows on even the most innocuous posts, he responds, which means he is actually reading what his constituents have to say. He is a prime example of what representative government means in the Internet era. Canned press releases posted to an official website no longer cut it, people now expect — demand, actually — two-way communication with those who represent them. Sharpe is among a handful of politicians in the entire nation leading the way. And, as a material aside, from his posts it is clear that he consumes books like most of us would go through potato chips.

I’ve contacted him directly twice. Once to report a problem on a couple of Ruskin streets to which readers alerted me. The problem was one that only the county had the ability to deal with and it involved some large machinery. It took a month or two, but without fanfare, suddenly that machinery appeared and alleviated a problem that had been plaguing residents and a small business for years.

The second time I asked him a simple question about a countywide text messaging alert system for emergencies. He clearly did some quick homework on the issue, responded with his own thoughts and then put me directly in touch with the necessary director of the appropriate county agency. And then, he followed up to ensure my questions were answered.
In his willingness to call a problem a problem, regardless of what party may be behind it, Sharpe has endured the wrath of what I think is a minority of people with very loud voices on two notable issues: transportation and the recent attempt to bring a domestic partner registry to Hillsborough County.

On transportation, Sharpe is forward-looking, attempting to see a Tampa Bay Area of tomorrow rather than finding quick fixes that are cheap today but expensive tomorrow. Despite Tampa’s ever worsening traffic, light rail remains a battle cry for those who persist in screaming “I got mine!” from their rooftops, believing that if they specifically don’t need effective mass transportation well then, dammit, no one does. But transportation is a huge and growing problem here and it has the very real potentiality of relegating this city to third or fourth tier status. That successful cities across America are building or expanding their own light rail systems doesn’t mean they merely enjoy wasting taxpayer dollars, it means they are looking at the hard realities of the future. Would such an investment pay off today?  No. In the future? Almost certainly. But by then it may be too late to begin.

In other words, while other American cities figure out how to successfully grow in the changing climate of the 21st century, the Tampa Bay Area runs the very real risk of being nothing more than a vast collection of disparate subdivisions and trailer parks, interspersed with strip malls linked by clogged freeways and minor roads littered with stoplights and taillights.

That’s just fine and dandy if “you got yours,” but investment in infrastructure is what has historically meant the difference between the success and failure of cities, states and nations.

New York City is a strong example of how success can be wrestled from the jaws of failure. In the 1970s, it was the poster child for urban decay and people were fleeing en masse. Just a few decades later, thanks both to Republicans and Democrats and significant public investment in infrastructure (including transportation, pre-emptive law enforcement and education), it is arguably the world’s most important city, with a powerful economy and long lines of people trying to figure out how to get in, stymied only by little available space and sky-high rents.

I realize there are easily as many people in Florida who despise New York as those who love it, but it’s hard to argue with cold facts. The city has the biggest economy in the United States and is second only to Tokyo in the world.  According to the U.S. Metro Economies Report, if the city were separated from the rest of the nation, it would be the 13th largest economy in the world, ahead of Australia, Mexico and South Korea.

OK, so perhaps it isn’t fair to compare the Tampa Bay area to a metropolitan area of 22 million people. So then let’s use the comparably sized Minneapolis-St. Paul area as an example. That metropolitan area stumbled hard after the housing bubble burst but has recovered much more quickly than has the Tampa Bay area. And, oh yeah, it is also home to some of the highest taxes in the nation and certainly not the greatest weather. But the Twin Cities have invested in themselves, most visibly in education and transportation. They have invested in light rail and are in the process of expanding it. As mentioned before in this column, despite high taxes and brutal winter weather, the Twin Cities area is home to several times the number of corporate headquarters than is the Tampa Bay area. Big companies know a good gig when they see one and taxes are quite clearly not the only criteria. Yet with smart and forward -looking investment, Florida can have both low taxes and a welcoming infrastructure that includes education and transportation. Of course, that could mean higher fees for developers and fewer free Bucs tickets for some elected officials. Perish the thought!

Sharpe also recently supported a domestic partner registry for Hillsborough County, something that was not supported by his fellow Republicans on the board. On Facebook and in interviews Sharpe addressed the complaints of a loudly vocal minority quite correctly saying that, “Allowing people to register their emergency contact or guardianship designee at the clerk’s office is no more advancing the ‘homosexual agenda’ than to issue a library card. Small Government should never ask of citizens why they choose to make the decisions they make, but merely afford all citizens equal protection under the law. If a man or woman can wear the uniform of this country and fight and die for freedom, they have earned the right to register without fear of harassment.”

I applaud Sharpe for his effort because I simply cannot understand how anyone, Republican or Democrat, can make the argument that whom we choose to provide privileges in our personal and private affairs is the government’s business.

Sharpe is a realist or a pragmatic dreamer perhaps, with his eyes not just on today but also tomorrow. Politicians once understood that the most powerful role of government was to invest in tomorrow. Today, governing a populace that seems to stand in front of microwave ovens screaming, “Hurry up!” is a difficult and unenviable task.

The problem is that Sharpe is a relatively young conservative Republican from an era when that meant something for America and average Americans, well before either of the parties went off the rails into insanity and extremism, obsessed with a strategy of destruction of the other party versus the uplifting of the general well being of our nation.

Lastly, I will save the publisher from having to devote space to a disclaimer. This column is my opinion alone. It is not the opinion of the publisher, the owner of the company, the CEO, the press operators who made this paper, the delivery person who left it on your driveway or the people who cut their hair or bagged their groceries. So, with all that said, I like Mark Sharpe. I certainly don’t agree with him all of the time, but I do respect him. I respect his military service, his intelligence, his commitment and, increasingly, I respect his public service. I think it is unfortunate that he is a rarity in politics. I hope that both Republicans and Democrats will follow his example. After all, as we demand more from our elected officials in this era of instant communication, they eventually may not have a choice.

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