On July 25, the Hernando County Association of Realtors announced the list of local candidates endorsed by the organization for the upcoming election. So, what does incumbent Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) member Steve Champion do when he saw his name was not on the list “for the second time”? The thin-skinned county commissioner throws a social media tantrum.
“For the second election in a row the Hernando Association of Realtors as (sic) endorsed my opponent WITHOUT even talking with me,” he complained in his Facebook tirade. “Is it because several of the board members are buddies with my opponent?”
However, while Champion insinuates that the votes for his “opponent” were inspired strictly by friendship, he is quick to boast that, “half” of his “campaign contributions are from Realtors, Brokers or Investors.”
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“Many hours of interviewing and research was devoted to the selection of HCAR’s recommended candidates,” HCAR Treasurer Anthony Kanaris responded in defense of their endorsements on Facebook — multiple times — explaining that “invitations were sent to ALL 20 candidates running for Sheriff, County Commission, School Board, Brooksville City Council and Judge at least two weeks prior to the interview date.”
Despite Champion’s claim to be “happy to answer any questions anytime,” Kanaris noted that, of the 20 campaign hopefuls running for office in Hernando County, Florida, “three candidates DID NOT respond to HCAR’s invitation for an interview and Steve Champion was one of them.”
“All candidates for the offices selected to be screened were invited to participate in our process,” HCAR Chief Executive Officer Brenda Rabbitt told Conservative Firing Line. “An email invitation (using the email address included on the candidates filing paperwork) was sent about two weeks in advance with a brief questionnaire to be completed and returned in advance. Candidates were directed to return the questionnaire and schedule an interview.”
Rabbit reiterated that “no response was received by Steve Champion.”
Asked what criteria the HCAR members consider when making their determination for endorsement, Rabbitt stated that “overall, topics include property rights, home ownership affordability, economic development, budget and community involvement.”
“Many factors are considered during deliberations that follow the interviews of the candidates,” Rabbitt explained. “Some items considered include knowledge of real estate issues/concerns, problems facing the holder of the office and actions prepared to solve them, position on taxes, electability, interactions with the association, campaign formation, campaign funds raised, voting record (if incumbent), etc.”
“On top of it they endorsed several liberal candidates from other races,” Champion complained further, as if the HCAR is only supposed to endorse Republicans. “I urge you to consider their history of endorsements and their process.”
As for “their process,” Rabbitt said, “the interviews were conducted by a subcommittee comprised of seven members who were trained by our state association.”
“The recommendations of the subcommittee were reviewed and approved by the nine-member board of directors,” she clarified, adding that “three of the BOD members who served on the subcommittee were part of the interview process.”
More disturbing than Champion’s childish social media tantrum and accusations of nefarious endorsement processes was his public endeavor to circumvent Florida’s Sunshine Laws, which forbid elected officials like Champion from trying to cut back-room deals with other officials. During a televised BOCC meeting he said they “were restrictive” and he did not understand why he couldn’t just sit down and discuss things with other commissioners behind closed doors away from public scrutiny. Curiously, at the same time, Champion’s was trying to get federal funding to build an outdoor shooting range in Hernando County. However, his effort failed because it wasn’t receiving enough support from his fellow board members. According to multiple legal sources, trying to use ones elected position for personal or financial gain is illegal. So, is it ethical for the owner of a gun store to use his position as a county commissioner to try to circumvent transparency laws and cut secret deals in an effort to build a business which would inevitably put more money in his pocket?
As reported by the Tampa Bay Times in September of 2017, Champion was also one of the BOCC members who voted to pull a proposed lobbying ordinance from the agenda, which would have created a lobbyist registry to keep track of the people who talk to county commissioners, department heads and other decision makers.
To further bolster Champion’s lack of ethics and honesty, he was also the administrator of a Facebook Group that encouraged racism and violence in the wake of the death* of George Floyd. When he was caught, Champion lied and said someone made him an administrator without his permission, even though you have to accept an invitation by the page creator in order to become an administrator. When that lie failed, Champion tried to scrub posts tying him to the hate-group from his campaign Facebook page, which doubles as a promotion tool for his gun and pawn business.
Champion also found himself in social media hot water when he began blocking anyone who disagrees with him on his campaign Facebook Page.
“He posts photos of guns, memes about guns and videos of people using guns, sometimes to promote the store he owns, American Gun & Pawn,” Jack Evans reported July 26, 2019 for the Tampa Bay Times. He posts jokes mocking liberal Democrats and blocks of text exalting President Donald Trump.”
He also posts his opinions regarding county commission issues and other public dealings. “It’s here,” Evans argued, “experts and courts say, that the profile of a public official crosses the boundary from the ‘personal’ social media realm into one of the busiest borderlands of free speech in the Facebook age.”
In July of 2019, a federal appeals court ruled that President Donald Trump violated the First Amendment when he blocked Twitter users. Champion admits to blocking “several dozen” people from his Facebook page. In Dec. 2019, Democrat Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York settled a lawsuit brought by a former elected assemblyman from Brooklyn after being sued for blocking him on social media.
“As soon as an elected official discusses government business on his profile, it ceases to be personal,” said former First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t care what anybody thinks,” the petulant Champion said. “Tell them to make me.”
This is hardly the first time Champion’s childish and highly questionable bully-antics have bubbled to the surface publicly. In fact, the thin-skinned County Commissioner throws a social media tantrum quite regularly.
As Dorothy Famiano reported for the Hernando Phoenix Aug. 25, 2019, “Champion went off the deep end even going so far to attack potential commission seat challenger Brooksville City Councilwoman Betty Erhard for sharing the article (about his effort to do away with the Sunshine Laws) on her official Facebook page by falsely accusing her of being a convicted felon. He then publicly threatened her for asking questions.
The millionaire commissioner and owner of American Gun and Pawn also appears to be socially tone-deaf when it comes to the use and promotion of firearms.
Aside from shocking the community by telling a disgruntled resident during a live broadcast of a BOCC meeting that it was “legal to shoot” his dog, Champion actually thought donating an AR-15 would be a “totally appropriate” way to spread holiday cheer to kids for Christmas.
As Barbara Behrendt reported December 14, 2017 for the Tampa Tribune, then Hernando County Commission Vice Chairman Steve Champion could not understand why his donation of an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle to a Toys for Tots fund raiser was met with such heated backlash.
“I think this is totally appropriate,” he said. “It was a matter of inspiring adults to come out and give toys.”
Florida’s 2020 Primary Election is scheduled for August 18. Champion’s opponent — endorsed by the HCAR — is Kevin Hohn. His campaign slogan is: “We must do better.”
*The report initially stated that George Floyd was shot. This has been corrected.