The 32 candidates for five Hillsborough County Commission seats were revving their campaigns into high gear with less than two weeks remaining before the Sept. 4 primary when the United States Justice Department said the election may not be valid.
The Justice Department, acting on a complaint of a local member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), ruled that the county's new boundaries created for electing commissioners discriminated against black people. (At press time, a decision was expected very soon.)
The Hillsborough County supervisor of elections decided to go ahead with the election unless the federal government gets an injunction to stop it, and the county sent a delegation to Washington to try to change the Justice Department's mind.
But the ruling has put a cloud over the future of the county's government.
Hillsborough County is not alone in facing tough scrutiny by the NAACP on the way it elects local officials. According to NAACP attorney Margaret Ford, suits have been filed that could affect counties in most of the Southern states and a few Northern ones.
''We've got about 10 filed in Mississippi, five or six in Georgia, at least one in Louisiana, and several more in Florida,'' Ms. Ford said. ''You can probably pick any state in the South and say there's a lawsuit filed, or there ought to be one.''
She said the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund is also filing suits in some Western states.
The suits are being filed, she said, either where election boundaries appear to be drawn to exclude blacks from the opportunity of electing someone of their choice, or where public officials are elected in countywide ballots in which blacks would not have a chance to win.
Matthew Coffey, executive director of the National Association of Counties, said he is aware of a couple of the lawsuits, but said he did not see a national trend.
''There's been a lot of controversy on the issue of redistricting,'' he said, ''but in many places they are trying to get away from carving up districts so that elected officials can serve an entire area. There's a constant waxing and waning in the way counties are organized.''
In the Hillsborough County case, controversy arose when the commissioners devised a new charter that would change the way commissioners were elected. Instead of electing five members from the county at large, as had been the practice, the commissioners decided to create election districts.
But the commissioners were not willing to create seven single-member districts, as blacks had requested. Instead, they created four single-member districts, then provided for three commissioners to be elected by the county at large. In that way, they reasoned, any person voting in the county would have a chance to help elect a majority of the county commission.
But black leaders in the county said the plan would not allow them an opportunity to be represented on the commission.
''Political justice has been denied and delayed for blacks in Hillsborough County, and it's about time someone stepped in and did it right,'' said Bob Gilder, president of the NAACP's local branch.
One district was created so that a minority candidate would have the best chance to win, but it contained only 34 percent blacks and 14 percent Hispanics.
What blacks want in the county is the creation of seven single-member districts so that at least one would be small enough that a majority of the voters would be black. ''We just want a fair and adequate chance to elect a candidate,'' Ford said.
But the officials who drew up the charter, and the white candidates who were running for the offices, are concerned lest seven single-member districts would divide the county into political fiefdoms.
''It would be unfortunate if we go to single-member districts,'' said candidate Roger Schurr. ''Each commissioner would look out only for his own district, which would create the type of pork-barrel politics that we have now in Washington.''
The Justice Department's decision was particularly hard for Rubin Padgett, one of three blacks of the 32 candidates, who had already spent $18,000 on his campaign.
''This certainly creates hardships for us,'' he said. ''But if the charter is discriminatory, I think it's better we find out now than after the election.''