Tampa Bay Archives - Florida Politics

Ahead of Thanksgiving, Kathy Castor looks to Feeding Tampa Bay to help solve food insecurity

“I’m not lazy. I’m just a mom trying to feed my special needs son.”

That’s the message on an enormous poster hanging from rafters stacking pallets of canned food and other non-perishable items at the Feeding Tampa Bay warehouse in Tampa.

The nonprofit agency serves 10 counties and feeds people throughout the region every day — not just Thanksgiving.

“Thanksgiving gives us an opportunity to remind everyone that this is a challenge every single day for families across this country and especially here in west Florida,” said U.S. Representative Kathy Castor during a tour of the facility.

As she spoke, a team of about 25 volunteers filled bags with sweet potatoes to be distributed to various food pantries and community partners throughout the agency’s coverage area.

The giant warehouse also is a daily distributing arm for fresh foods ranging from strawberries and bananas to meats and cheeses.

The agency has seen an uptick in food contributions since President Donald Trump’s tariffs lead to a backlash from farmers worried it would impact their bottom line. In response, Trump issued a $12 billion aid package to farmers.

While the influx in food contributions will help the agency provide more benefits — some families will receive up to six weeks worth of food rather than the previous one-week allocations — Feeding Tampa Bay is worried the cost to process that excess won’t be covered, according to Executive Director Thomas Mantz.

The agency expects to have to lease additional warehouse space to store cold foods and will need additional personnel to help distribute it.

“So, perhaps you could help us make that case,” Mantz said to Castor, asking for support drawing down federal dollars to help cover additional expenses. 

Feeding Tampa Bay serves more than 600,000 individuals including nearly 200,000 children. It provides 46 million meals each year, a retail value of $100 million.

The agency estimates its charitable giving amounts to nearly $150 million in economic impact throughout the region.

“When you look at a basic family of four — a mom, a dad and two kids — even an income of some $65,000 a year, which sounds good, but that family winds up with less than $2.50 a day per person to spend on food,” Mantz said. “They have income. They have homes. They have jobs. They have responsibilities. But their obligations are greater than their income.”

A mom pictured in on of the posters whose son requires special medical needs is a featured client. She worked as a special education teacher, but a tumor in her leg left her unable to return to work. Now she cares for her son full time and her husband’s paycheck isn’t always enough to cover housing and medical costs and provide adequate food for the month.

Another poster shows a college student, Nevin, pursuing a degree in engineering on a scholarship. His photo is also emblazoned on a poster.

“I am not a burden,” it reads.

That’s the overall message Feeding Tampa Bay and its 550 agency and community partners want to send to potential donors.

“There are families across our community who are food insecure. Even though the economy has gotten better, we have so many families who still struggle to make enough money to make sure that their families have a healthy meal every single day,” Castor said. “Wages have just not kept up.”

The agency will see a surge in contributions — both financial and food — through this week as people begin getting in the holiday spirit, according to Mantz. But he hopes that civic-minded charitable pattern will continue throughout the year if people understand the power of providing healthy meals.

“My background is specifically in how strong, community-based food systems can lead to other community benefits — safer streets, lower crime and lower healthcare, which results in more money in our pockets. Every single one us regardless of whether or not we are directly impacted will have an effect on all of us,” said Monica Petrella whose graduate work at the University of Vermont centered on food insecurity.

Harry Cohen - Tampa City Council

Harry Cohen unveils detailed transportation, transit plan for Tampa

Tampa mayoral candidate Harry Cohen, a current City Council member, released a comprehensive transportation plan this week that addresses safety, traffic congestion, economic development and transit, among other things.

The plan leverages the estimated $34 million annually the city will get for its portion of the overall $280 million raised from the 1 percent transportation and transit sales tax Hillsborough County voters approved November 6.

Cohen lists safety as his No. 1 priority.

“The Tampa Bay region ranks consistently and unacceptably high on annual reports of pedestrian injuries and fatalities,” Cohen laid out in a four-page document his campaign is distributing to voters in person and online. “At the same time, a growing number of Tampa residents are using bikes or walking as a primary mode of travel.”

Cohen proposes implementing traffic calming measures on existing roads. That includes things like making travel lanes more narrow, reducing lanes and putting up barriers for bike lanes.

He also wants to add more than 90 flashing beacon crosswalks throughout the city, install hundreds of miles of new sidewalks including five new miles per year, and improve existing sidewalks.

Cohen also wants to work with CSX to consider a possible trail, similar to the Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail, along the rail corridor between downtown Tampa and New Tampa, including the University area. He’s proposing another trail on the South Tampa peninsula.

Cohen said the plan does not mean that corridor could not also be used for transit, a proposal that has been suggested by transit activists.

The safety plan also includes increasing the number of bike racks, including adding bike racks at any new transit-oriented multifamily and commercial developments. Cohen wants new bike and pedestrian infrastructure to connect with transit routes to encourage ridership and offer multi-modal solutions to commuters hoping to ditch their cars.

Cohen also wants to ensure new transportation revenue is used to improve Tampa’s Advanced Traffic Management System, including timed lights, to increase traffic flow and reduce congestion. Those plans also include adding left turn lanes, which allows through traffic to avoid backups from people waiting to make a turn.

Cohen’s transit plan is perhaps the most robust.

His pamphlet says he “will use the bully pulpit of the Mayor’s office to be the region’s leading voice in advocating for a public transportation system that is a shining jewel Tampa can be proud of, and that provides premium service to all residents regardless of neighborhood or socioeconomic status.”

That includes securing rights to the SCX corridor, completing the Tampa Streetcar expansion and building a downtown central station.

Cohen envisions the downtown station as a robust mixed-use development that includes multifamily housing, entertainment, and retail.

“It has to be a major development,” Cohen said.

A self-proclaimed voracious reader, Cohen said he considers options for Tampa in anything he reads or personally experiences.

“What if we had a Grand Central Station like New York or a transit hub like in Spain where you can get off a bus and immediately hop on a train,” Cohen said. “Downtown Tampa is the perfect spot to start building those connections.”

The Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization’s long-range transportation plan already includes a multimodal station in the Westshore business district that would serve the business community there as well as people coming into or out of Tampa International Airport.

“But this can be something that works with that and HART could easily provide some sort of shuttle service to make that connection,” Cohen said.

Those connections would serve as interim routes until more permanent solutions could be identified and funded.

In addition to a large transit hub, Cohen also wants to work with HART and the Florida Department of Transportation to create small air-conditioned stations to enhance the public transportation experience.

He also wants to work with HART to ensure the entire city is served by adequate bus service.

Cohen’s transportation plan is part of a series of policy rollouts he plans throughout his campaign.

Later, he will be releasing plans for stormwater repairs and maintenance and flooding mitigation, affordable housing, better neighborhood equity, and improved public discourse.

Cohen is running to replace current Mayor Bob Buckhorn against a crowded field of contenders. They include:

— Former Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor.

— Tampa City Council member Mike Suarez.

— Former Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik.

— Philanthropist David Straz.

— Small business consultant Topher Morrison.

— Community activist LaVaughn King.

— Michael Anthony Hazard, also a community activist. 

Joe Henderson: Public schools a winning issue for Janet Cruz in SD 18

Janet Cruz got into the race for Senate District 18 to make an issue out of gun violence, but she discovered quickly that voters in her Hillsborough County district were even more passionate about restoring public school funding.

That became Cruz’s battle cry throughout a tough, nasty campaign against incumbent Republican Dana Young. It proved to be the winning strategy in Cruz’s 411-vote victory out of more than 207,000 votes that were cast.

Cruz, who was forced to leave her Florida House seat because of term limits, had an awakening after a chance meeting with a voter at a South Tampa Home Depot. That woman told her she had gone to the store to purchase portable air conditioners for some classrooms at Roosevelt Elementary School in the Palma Ceia section of Tampa.

Families had pooled money together to buy the units after cooling units at the school crashed. It was a county-wide problem as dozens of schools were affected. Officials said state funding cutbacks left them without enough money to combat the problem.

“Roosevelt Elementary is in one of the wealthiest areas of Tampa, but they still had this problem. We had been hollering and stomping our feet (in the House) when we saw dollars going away from public schools. Journalists wrote about it,” Cruz said.

“But it wasn’t until mothers saw their kids sitting in sweltering classrooms that people decided to make a stand.”

The more Cruz met with those voters, the more she realized how determined they were.

“These were smart women, prepared,” she said. “They knew the issue. I was up there (in Tallahassee) and saw what those guys (lawmakers) were doing, trying to blame the problems on mismanagement by the school districts. That’s ridiculous and these women knew that.

“They came with spreadsheets … Excel charts. I started working with them. I remember one woman told me she was a lifelong Republican, but she was going to vote a straight Democratic ticket because of this issue.”

Democrats targeted SD 18 as one of six districts they believed they could flip in this election and regain control of the Senate. Of those six, Cruz was the only Democrat who won.

She will be sworn in Tuesday.

The name Janet Cruz is well known in the western West Tampa area of Hillsborough, and it’s no surprise she dominated there — piling up wins with totals at many precincts ranging from 61 percent to as much as 86 percent. Young had solid support in the northern precincts but didn’t get the votes she expected in South Tampa.

The contest was marked by charges and counter-charges from the start.

Young’s camp pounced on an unpaid property tax bill from 2010 that Cruz said was a mix-up she self-reported and paid in full after realizing the error.

Cruz fired back with an ad highlighting that Young’s net worth had increased from $667,000 in 2010 to more than $4.6 million, suggesting it was due in part to bills Young sponsored that benefitted her bottom line.

She also attacked Young for walking out of a special Senate session last March in the aftermath of the Parkland massacre when it was time to vote on measures that included an assault weapons ban.

Young claimed she left the floor to tend to other pressing business and later registered votes against the ban and other restrictions. Cruz called Young a “coward” at the time and said that helped convince her to get into the race.

Cruz said that in addition to seeking bipartisan support for increased public-school funding, she will continue the fight for that assault weapons ban. She knows it will be an uphill fight, with Republicans again controlling both branches of the Legislature and the Governor’s mansion.

“I’m not going to advocate for anyone to lose their right to bear arms,” she said. “But I just don’t think it’s justified for just anyone to be able to obtain one of these weapons of death. I’ll keep pushing.”

And listening.

Steve Cona

Prepping for Hillsborough School Board, Steve Cona III resigns HCC board

Steve Cona III has officially resigned from the Board of Trustees for Hillsborough Community College, submitting a letter of resignation to Gov. Rick Scott on Friday.

“It has been a pleasure and a great honor being a part of Hillsborough Community College. I am so proud of all we have accomplished in the past five years, and I have no doubt the college will continue these successes in the future,” Cona wrote.  

Scott appointed Cona to the HCC Board of Trustees in 2015.  His position will remain vacant until a gubernatorial appointment is made. That’s not likely to happen until after January when Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis assumes office.

Cona resigned to serve on the Hillsborough County School Board. He ran against retired Hillsborough County Schools administrator Bill Person and won with 54 percent of the vote.

Cona is President of the Associated Builders and Contractors Florida Gulf Coast Chapter. The first-term candidate raised more money than his challenger, mostly from conservative political action committees.

Cona wants to work to create more sustainable and fiscally responsible business decisions on the school board, a skill that will be put to use as the district begins allocating funds raised by the one half percent sales tax increase voters approved to fund school district infrastructure and education programs.

The majority of that revenue will go toward repairing and replacing air conditioning systems at Hillsborough District schools and properties.

Cona also supports working with private industries to create skills-based learning programs for high school students so they can graduate career ready.

Person was a second time candidate, narrowly losing another race for school board in 2016. He’s a retired school teacher, principal and school administrator.

Cona will replace outgoing Hillsborough County School Board member Susan Valdes who did not seek re-election in order to run for a seat in the House of Representatives, which she won.

Next Tampa mayoral forum will tackle pedestrian, cyclist safety

The group Walk Bike Tampa is hosting a mayoral forum tackling one of the city and region’s top ticket issues — transportation safety.

The Dec. 11 forum will focus on candidates’ ideas on pedestrian and cyclist safety. That includes plans to create walkable spaces and improve neighborhood sidewalks.

Tampa Bay Times reporter and columnist Ernest Hooper is moderating the debate at Sparkman Wharf on Channelside Drive in downtown Tampa.

The debate is free and open to the public, but there is limited seating. The event starts at 6 p.m.

Tampa consistently ranks as one of the deadliest places for pedestrians and bike riders. Corridors like Busch Boulevard have proved deadly, and efforts to create safer mid-intersection crosswalks aren’t entirely solving the issue.

When a new Mayor takes office next May, he or she will have a unique opportunity to do something about it. After years of failed attempts, Hillsborough County will now have a dedicated revenue stream through the 1 percent sales tax voters approved Nov. 6 to tackle a variety of transportation and transit projects — including safety.

Through the successful All For Transportation referendum, Tampa’s new Mayor will be charged with including projects in the annual budget using the city’s portion of the $280 million annually the new tax will raise.

Of that funding, 12 percent must be for safety projects. Funds can also be used for pedestrian trails.

Candidates will likely all agree that the issue of pedestrian and cyclist safety will be paramount. How that takes shape is the (multi) million dollar question.

Tampa could benefit from having better-connected sidewalks near schools. The city is still sorely lacking in safe road crossings along busy corridors. The city is still so car-centric that walking feels like a death sentence.

Solutions are likely to take the form of more than just the obvious. Bike lanes and sidewalks are just part of the solution. Better transit that takes cars off the road is part of the conversation. Traffic congestion relief is another.

Whatever their ideas are, the eight candidates running for Mayor — former police Chief Jane Castor, Tampa City Council members Harry Cohen and Mike Suarez, former Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik, philanthropist David Straz, small business consultant Topher Morrison, and community activists LaVaughn King and Michael Anthony Hazard — will be pressed over and over for details on how they’ll begin the arduous task of solving these problems.

Do-over: Dana Young, Janet Cruz race going to hand recount

The machine recount in the Senate District 18 race between Janet Cruz and Dana Young came short 800 votes of the reported Election Day results, the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections confirmed Thursday.

As a result, the agency is using its “first unofficial count” reported last week to send back to the state’s Division of Elections for certification.

State election officials ordered Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer to conduct a manual recount in the race because the margin of victory is now within 0.25 percent.

Cruz, the Democrat, narrowly leads Young, the current GOP incumbent.

Cruz already declared victory in an announcement last Wednesday the day after the election. Young has yet to issue a concession.

If the state orders a manual recount, Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections workers will begin that count on Friday at 9 a.m. The agency plans to continue counting through the day until 6 p.m. and then resume again Saturday morning during the same hours.

In a recount by hand, only undervotes and overvotes are considered.

If the agency feels it’s not going to finish its counts within that schedule, they will extend counting hours at the main Supervisor’s office on Falkenburg Road.

Elections staff will be at up to 20 counting tables, where employees will review ballots to determine voter intent. Undervotes are those not counted due to unclear or no marking by the voter. Overvotes are ballots in which the voter indicated more than the allotted amount of choices in a single race.

Political party and candidate designees will have the ability to observe counting at those tables, the supervisor’s office said Wednesday.

The Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections is the defendant in a lawsuit filed this week by the Rick Scott for U.S. Senate campaign, alleging the office was not allowing its designees access to recount activities, but rather having them observe behind a glass window.

All Canvassing Board meetings, including those that take place during the manual recount, are open to the public.

Any changes to the Canvassing Board or recount schedule will be posted on the doors of the four Supervisor of Elections Offices and its website.

Bob Buckhorn appoints first member to All For Transportation oversight committee

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has made the first appointment to the All For Transportation oversight committee that will act as a steward of taxpayer revenue funding transportation and transit improvements in Hillsborough County.

Buckhorn appointed former Florida Senator Arthenia Joyner to the committee.

“Throughout her time in the Florida Legislature, Senator Joyner proved to be a tireless fiscal steward for our community while being laser focused on fighting for the needs of Tampanians, not only in her district, but across the region,” Buckhorn said. “I trust that she will continue to provide that same focus as she ensures these new funds are appropriately allocated.”

The committee will eventually consist of 16 non-elected officials appointed from a variety of boards and elected officials.

Mayors of all three Hillsborough cities – Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City – each get an appointee. Buckhorn gets a second appointee because the city’s population exceeds 200,000.

The other appointees will be chosen by Hillsborough County Commission, the councils or commissions of Hillsborough municipalities, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, Hillsborough Clerk of Courts, Hillsborough Tax Collector and Hillsborough Property Appraiser.

The oversight committee will audit plans from HART, Hillsborough County and the three municipalities to ensure they are in accordance with the All For Transportation implementing guidelines.

Voters approved the Hillsborough transportation initiative with 57 percent of the vote. The plan raises sales tax in the county 1 percent and will raise about $280 million annually.

Of those proceeds, 45 percent will go to HART for transit improvements, 54 percent to the county and cities for road, safety and traffic congestion reduction projects and 1 percent to fund the oversight committee.

The allocations to Tampa and county require 20 percent of the money to go toward road maintenance, 27 percent to safety improvements and 12 percent for transportation network improvements like bicycle and pedestrian lanes.

The provisions also requires 75 percent of new transit funded through the referendum to operate in dedicated lanes or rights of way.

Conservative group takes Tampa conversion therapy ban challenge to federal court

A conservative advocacy group is in federal court this week trying to overturn Tampa’s ban on conversion therapy in which counselors seek to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

The group Liberty Counsel filed suit last December after Tampa City Council unanimously approved the ban and implemented harsh fines for counselors who violated it.

Now the group is getting their day in court describing the ban as one that blocks minors from “seeking to reduce or eliminate their unwanted same-sex attractions, behaviors or identity.”

The Tampa ban applies only to minors and was adopted after numerous accounts nationwide of children who claimed to be psychologically scarred from the practice, which was forced upon them by parents, guardians or church leaders. Numerous medical groups have denounced the practice.

It’s banned in 12 states and the District of Columbia.

The ordinance imposes a $1,000 fine for first offenders and up to $5,000 in fines for subsequent offenses.

Liberty Counsel is representing counselors Robert Vazzo and David Pickup as well as their minor clients. Vazzo and Pickup are both well-known “reparative therapists.”

In an interview with the group Voices of the Silenced, Vazzo said he viewed “homosexuality as a type of fetish where the object happens to be human.”

Both Vazzo and Pickup in interviews have said that “homosexuality” is a by product of some greater “wound.” For example, a boy who was bullied or who lacked male authority as a child, might turn to same-sex relationships as a way to reclaim masculinity.

“It’s not just one thing and your son turns gay,” Pickup said in a radio interview in 2015.

Liberty Counsel alleges on behalf of its clients that therapists should be able to use the “sacred trust” between counselors and their clients to help those clients reach their goals.

They argue Tampa’s ban violates the First Amendment by “imposing a viewpoint and content-based prohibition on the speech on licensed professionals.”

“The city of Tampa has no authority to prohibit counselors from providing counsel which their clients seek,” said Mat Staver, Founder and Chairman of Liberty Counsel. “The government has no business eavesdropping inside the counseling rooms, and the city has no authority to enact a local counseling regulation.”

Liberty Counsel is an international group that operates as the sort of counter to the ACLU, fighting for policies that advance religious freedom and pro-life and family values. The non-profit group has been offering legal assistance on those topics since 1989.

Oldsmar City Council races: What you need to know

Most of Oldsmar’s City Council members, including the Mayor, are up for re-election next March. Seven candidates have filed in the races for Mayor and Seats One, Two, and Four.

Eric Seidel, the current Vice Mayor, so far is running unopposed to replace Doug Bevis as Mayor.

Two newcomers, Matt Clarke and Andrew Knapp, and former Council Member Linda Norris are running for Vice Mayor to replace Seidel.

Dan Saracki is running unopposed in his Seat Two. Seat Four incumbent Jerry Beverland drew one challenger, Katie Gannon.

Seat Three’s Gabby McGee is not up for re-election this cycle.

Seat One’s Clarke is the most monied candidate facing challengers so far. Clarke loaned his campaign $10,100 but hasn’t received any contributions from donors.

Norris is second in the funding race, but the only in the Vice Mayor contest to bring in contributions from Oldsmar residents and other outside donors. She has raised $1,900 including contributions from former state Rep. Carl Zimmerman and Pinellas County Commissioner Pat Gerard. Norris loaned her campaign $500.

Knapp has brought in just $304 through a personal loan.

None of the three candidates have spent much. All forked out a little more than $100 on campaign filing and qualifying fees. Clarke spent just shy of $400 on T-shirts and business cards.

Clarke is an Oldsmar businessman and co-founder of Shermatt International Million Dollar International Export Company. Norris is an Oldsmar lawyer, and Knapp is an engineer.

Seat Four incumbent Beverland is seeking re-election despite years of personal tragedy.

The longtime Council Member has lived in Oldsmar since before air conditioning was the norm. He writes books on the city’s history. He and his wife, Wanda, have lost both of their sons to a rare genetic illness and, in 2006, lost their 16-year old granddaughter when she was hit by a car while skateboarding in Clearwater.

Beverland’s perseverance through tragedy is enough on its own to make challenging him an uphill climb. Since the 1970s, Beverland has served a total of 25 years on Oldsmar City Council as Mayor, Vice Mayor, and City Council Member.

He has worked in various capacities throughout this life. He managed Winn Dixie stores for a couple of years and owned landscaping and roofing companies. Now he’s an antique dealer, according to his LinkedIn bio.

His challenger, Gannon, is a young lawyer and mother of two toddlers. She’s running as “a new voice” in the city to “make downtown a reality.” While her campaign website does not specifically mention Beverland, she paints her campaign as forward-looking, rather than backward.

Gannon is well-connected in the community, serving on the Oldsmar Leisure Services Advisory Board, the Oldsmar Historical Society, Oldsmar Women’s Club, and Friends of the Oldsmar Library. She and her husband have lived in Oldsmar since 1990.

Gannon’s campaign is so far self-funded.

The qualifying deadline for the Oldsmar race is close of business Friday.

Hung Mai appointed to Tampa Port Authority

Gov. Rick Scott announced Wednesday the appointment of Hung Mai to the Tampa Port Authority.

Mai’s term begins this week and will run until Nov. 15, 2019.

The newest member of the Port Authority is President and CEO of H.T. Mai Inc., a civil engineering and consulting firm. He previously relocated from Vietnam as a refugee in 1978.

Mai received his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Saigon and is a member of the Tampa Bay Aviation Association.

The Port Authority oversees Port Tampa Bay, located near Tampa’s Channel District and the largest port in the state of Florida. Mai’s appointment will fill a vacant seat.

Mai is a Republican activist in Hillsborough County. He has previously chaired the Hillsborough Diversity Advisory Council.

The appointment is subject to confirmation by the Florida Senate.

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