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#11 on list of Tampa Bay’s Most Powerful Politicians — Ken Welch

It’s no wonder Ken Welch is Pinellas County Commission chair (again) this year.

First elected in 2000 and later re-elected four times, Welch is thoughtful and incredibly detail-oriented. It’s clear his deliberative style has contributed to the board’s collaborative, seemingly nonpartisan approach to hammering out policy.

“Commissioner Welch is a Chairman’s chairman. A grounded statesman and an intelligent, respected, leader who loves his community and his constituents. When he talks, we all listen,” said Southern Strategy Group’s Laura Boehmer.

Contrast that with their counterparts across the bay, where the partisan divide is much more obvious.

Not that he’s afraid to wear his politics on his sleeve. Welch went to bat for St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman last year as he faced what at times seemed like an insurmountable challenge from former Mayor Rick Baker, a Republican. He’s also vocal on Democratic causes like worker rights, transit and the environment, and doesn’t miss an opportunity to call out Gov. Rick Scott and state lawmakers when they try to strip power from cities and counties.

With the recent passing of Commissioner John Morroni (a Republican whom Welch said, “had a true passion for serving the community” and “put people first”) Democrats now have a 4-2 majority on the commission. As chair, he can place priority on progressive policies if he chooses — and in the wake of the Parkland shooting, a proposed assault-style weapons ban was certainly on the agenda.

So far this year, Welch has led the charge on rejuvenating the county’s Small Business Enterprise program, which aims to connect local women- and minority-owned businesses with opportunities to contract with the county as well as the school board. He’s sought greater accountability for CareerSource Pinellas after evidence of gross mismanagement came to light earlier this year.

Welch is up for re-election in 2020. If he wishes to stay on the board for another term, he probably wouldn’t have any problems doing so; he was automatically re-elected in 2016 due to lack of opposition. Yet he recently confirmed rumors about an interest in running for Mayor of St. Petersburg when Kriseman terms out in 2021. And it isn’t the first time he’s been talked about as a possible contender for that post.

Talk about a jump in rank; Welch came in No. 23 on last year’s list.

For a complete explanation of how this list was created and who made up the panel that amassed it, please read here.

Sixth annual list of Tampa Bay’s 25 Most Powerful Politicians

There certainly has been a great deal of change since we published last year’s annual list of the Most Powerful Politicians in Tampa Bay.

First of all, the website we published it to — SaintPetersBlog.com — is shuttered after the decision was made to focus all of our reporting energies into FloridaPolitics.com.

Second, and more important as it relates to this list, last year’s #1, former state Sen. Jack Latvala, is nowhere to be found on this list after he resigned in scandal in late 2017.

With the top spot being vacated that obviously means there will be a new #1, but it also likely means there is additional volatility up and down on the list. Who stepped up to fill the vacuum created by Latvala’s exit?

In compiling the 2018 list, Florida Politics queried several of the region’s leading political consultants, activists, bloggers, operatives and local lobbyists to name who they consider the 25 most powerful pols in the area. No suggested names were provided.

For this exercise, the Tampa Bay region is defined as Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco, but can also include Hernando, Polk or Sarasota, particularly if politicians from those counties impact either Pinellas or Hillsborough.

Among those on the 2017 panel: Democratic consultant Tom Alte and Meagan Salisbury of Blue Ticket Consulting, Laura Boehmer of Southern Strategy Group — Tampa Bay, Tucker/Hall president Bill Carlson, Ana Cruz of Ballard Partners, investigative journalist Mike Deeson, political consultant Barry EdwardsMatt Florell of St. Pete Polls, former Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce Chairman Mike Griffin, Tampa Bay politico Carrie Henriquez, columnist Joe Henderson, Democratic activist Shannon Love, political strategist Jennifer Lux, Momentum Strategy Group president Brock Mikosky, former state Rep. Edwin Narain, former state Rep. Seth McKeel of Southern Strategy Group — Tampa Bay, Dr. Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus at USF, Anthony Pedicini and Tom Piccolo of Strategic Image Management, Tom Scherberger of the Hillsborough County Clerk’s Office, Chris Spencer of GrayRobinson, Alan Suskey of Suskey Consulting, J.D. White of Mercury Public Affairs, and public affairs consultant Michelle Schorsch.

Being listed first on a panelist’s list earned 25 points, second earned 24 points and so on. Listing as 25th received one point. Points were then added up and — voilà — the list was created.

In the top four or five slots might be who you’d expect. But once you pass that, the list starts to get truly fascinating.

And a few names not included could indeed be a surprise.

With that introduction, we ask you to please stay tuned to Florida Politics throughout the week as we count down the 25 most influential political figures in Tampa Bay. Follow the list on Twitter with #Top25InTB.

P.S. Thank you to Kate Bradshaw, formerly of the Tampa Tribune and Creative Loafing, for writing the profiles about each politician on the list. And a special thanks to Southern Strategy Group — Tampa Bay, which sponsored this year’s rankings. With their deep involvement in the Tampa Bay community, no wonder it’s signing high-profile clients like the remade ZooTampa.

#1 — Chris Sprowls

#2 — Bob Buckhorn

#3 — Bill Galvano 

#4 — Rick Kriseman

#5 — Wilton Simpson 

#6 — Kathy Castor

#7 — Richard Corcoran

#8 — Jeff Brandes

#9 — Ken Hagan

#10 — Darryl Rouson

#11 — Ken Welch

#12 — Janet Cruz

#13 — Sandra Murman

#14 — Tom Lee

#15 — Gus Bilirakis

#16 — Charlie Crist

#17 — Dana Young

#18 — Bob Gualtieri 



#19 — Janet Long

#20 — Vern Buchanan 

#21 — Andrew Warren

#22 — Darden Rice

#23 — Chad Chronister

#24 — Chris Latvala 

#25 — Les Miller (tie)

#25 — Ben Diamond (tie)

Democratic hopeful Ray Pena hits CD 15 with old-school handshaking, retail politics

Ray Pena, of Lakeland, is running for the Democratic Party’s nomination for Florida’s 15th Congressional District as the first Hispanic-American to seek the district located in portions of Hillsborough, Polk and Lake counties.

He is doing it the old-fashioned way, handshaking every person he meets and appearing at all public candidate meetings. He enumerates the issues that he says are ignored by the other party, i.e., critical highway infrastructure needs, the total lack of interest in public education funding by the administration and repeal of the Republican Budget Act.

While both his Democratic Primary opponents, Andrew Learned of Valrico and Kristen Carlson of Lakeland have campaign war chests of more than $100,000, Pena reported campaign funds of less than $5,000 in the most recent report of the Federal Elections Commission.

Perhaps it is the lack of big-time contributors or the highly visible primary fight between Learned and Carlson over who should get the Democratic Party’s support that Pena is often unknown in spite of all his groundwork.

“I have been running for a year and a half,” Pena told Florida Politics Wednesday. “Do you know who was the first media outlet to sit down for a face-to-face interview with me? You are. Today.”

Learned has been running for a year, but has gained more attention now that Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross of Lakeland is stepping down from his Congressional District 15 seat and Democrats believe it is vulnerable.

The son of a Cuban mother and Puerto Rican father, Pena is a veteran of the Coast Guard and a 33-year veteran of the San Jose Police Department, retiring as a detective. He owns General Aviation LLC in Winter Haven. He is a commercial helicopter pilot

Pena embodies the belief that a person can still put themselves up for election and run on their ideas and by meeting people at post offices, the tax collector’s office, and small-town gatherings. But to meet the demands for electronic media and newspapers, big money is often a determining factor.

Unable to hold large fundraisers with Congresswoman Kathy Castor hosting as Learned has done or to have a group like EMILY’s List endorse and notify their heavy donors as was done for Carlson, Pena has gone on a marathon handshaking campaign.

“Quite seriously, I have met close to 30,000 people in the district since I started in February 2017,” he said.

One issue he says he would fight for in Congress is the repeal of the Jobs Act, which he said is unfair to middle class working people.

“Infrastructure must be addressed. I-4 is the most dangerous highway in the nation. Between 2011 and 2017, 164 people were killed on that roadway,” he said.

In education, more money is needed in every state, but particularly in Florida.

”I am against any tax dollars going to charter schools whether for profit or public. We must start investing in teachers and our school kids,” he said. “We also need to create tuition-free education for our public universities’ undergraduate programs. It’s done in the San Francisco area, New York City, and others, and students are required to stay in their area and work for a period of four years.”

And if the Democratic Primary isn’t rough enough, the winner will face the winner of a six-way Republican Primary for District 15.

“I am not worried,” he said of his opponents’ money, both Democrats and Republicans. “When people see a genuine person, they gravitate toward them. I would tell all candidates and elected officials everywhere, stop your maliciousness and just be honest to the people.”

“Ours is a genuine grassroots campaign. We certainly have the deep roots, but are waiting for the grass,” he said.

#12 on list of Tampa Bay’s Most Powerful Politicians — Janet Cruz

First elected to her Tampa state House seat in 2010, Janet Cruz served as House Minority Leader over the 2017 and 2018 legislative sessions. She’s the first Latina to serve in that capacity.

While Democratic leaders in the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature often have little influence, Cruz has managed to have some sway.

She has been effective at getting her party’s message across in the critical months leading up to the 2018 midterms.

When Florida Democratic Party Chair Stephen Bittel was accused of inappropriate behavior toward female staffers in November 2017, Cruz was the first to issue a statement condemning his actions. Following a report dealing with multiple allegations of sexual misconduct in the Capitol, namely against former Republican Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater, Cruz said she was “horrified.”

At the start of the 2018 Session, Cruz also called out House Speaker Richard Corcoran on a bill targeting so-called sanctuary cities.

She’s terming out at the end of this year, but she’s far from finished.

In 2017, she announced a run for Hillsborough County Commission. But Cruz dropped that bid in April and then jumped into the race for state Senate District 18 against Sen. Dana Young, the incumbent Republican elected to the newly-drawn seat in 2016.

Cruz cited a desire to pass laws that may prevent mass shootings like the one that occurred in Parkland as a key reason for jumping in and criticized Young for missing three votes on amendments to the gun bill the legislature was debating earlier this year.

“I love our community and I am fed up with lawmakers who put the interests of the NRA, the for-profit school industry, and insurance companies before the people they represent,” Cruz said in a news release heralding her candidacy.

SD 18 went for Hillary Clinton in 2016, but winning wouldn’t exactly be easy. For one, Young is a well-funded Republican incumbent with moderate sensibilities not too far off from those of the district, which runs from South Tampa up through northwestern Hillsborough County. Plus, some Democrats aren’t happy that her entrance into the race prompted Bob Buesing (who had also been Young’s Dem opponent in 2016) to exit.

Given her track record in the House — and her tendency to gravitate toward leadership roles, should she and a handful of fellow Democrats manage to flip the Senate in November, good things would likely be in store.

Cruz Rifkin climbed to No. 12 from the No. 19 spot last year.

Joe Henderson‘s take: “Probably could have easily won Hillsborough County Commission race, but Parkland massacre set her eye on Young’s Senate seat.”

For a complete explanation of how this list was created and who made up the panel that amassed it, please read here.

Mike Alvarez weighs in on Susan Valdes resignation controversy

Susan Valdes’ resignation from the Hillsborough School Board may not have been above-board, something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by one of her Democratic primary opponents in House District 62.

As previously reported, Valdes’ resignation from the District 1 School Board seat came in late and was initially rejected by the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections before the office reversed course and announced that it had been accepted Monday.

Valdes is now a candidate for HD 62, and Democratic primary rival Mike Alvarez issued a statement Wednesday calling on Valdes to explain how, exactly, she made it into the race after missing the resign-to-run deadline.

“Commissioner Valdes and I are both Democrats. As a true Democrat, I understand that our party values transparency, the rule of law, and access for all people to our government institutions — especially in the age of Trump,” Alvarez said in a news release.

“That’s why it’s extremely concerning to hear that legally valid requests for public information are being stonewalled to keep voters in the dark. We deserve to know why a long time elected official like Commissioner Valdes is getting special treatment from government employees, how she sought that special treatment, and what role government staff played in this process.

“I’m calling on Commissioner Valdes to immediately instruct the Hillsborough County School Board to release all emails pertaining to her resignation, her failure to file legally required documents, steps government employees took to change widely reported facts, and what pressure she put on government employees to advance her political career. This should also include all correspondence between Commissioner Valdes and School Board staff with the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections and the Supervisor’s staff.

“By all appearances, Commissioner Valdes is using her grip on the School Board and its employees to block from public view information that the public is legally entitled to — I hope the Commissioner will take this first step toward a legal, ethical, and transparent process and away from a troubling history of insider deals and special treatment for the political elite.”

Tom Alte, a consultant to the Alvarez campaign, said Hillsborough Schools denied a public records requests seeking communications related to Valdes’ resignation, claiming it was “too broad,” though Hillsborough Schools refutes that claim.

Grayson Kamm, a communications and media officer for Hillsborough County Public Schools, said his office never denied Alte’s request but did reach out to him to inform him the request would “take a considerable amount of time to gather” and “could potentially contain student information, which, by law, would need to be reviewed and redacted and may incur costs for the amount of staff time required for that review.”

“Our public records process and our staff members follow the law and serve the public,” he said.

HD 62 covers part of Hillsborough County and is currently held by House Minority Leader Janet Cruz, who is term-limited and running for state Senate in the fall.

Alvarez filed for the seat, a Democratic stronghold, in May 2017. Fellow Democrat Christopher Carlos Cano entered the race on June 1 followed Monday by Valdes. The qualifying deadline for candidates to make the 2018 ballot is noon, June 22.

Steve Cona

Steve Cona files for Hillsborough School Board

Tampa businessman Steve Cona announced Tuesday that is running for District 1 seat on the Hillsborough County School Board.

“Our public schools should be our biggest economic development engine; a place that cultivates and elevates the uniqueness of every student. As a school board member, I will work to ensure our students are prepared to be career and college ready. As a father, I want to ensure we are utilizing all of our current resources to provide the best learning environments for our students,” Cona said in a news release.

“My expertise and experience will provide a fresh set of eyes and solutions to build the best school district in the country because that is what our Hillsborough County students deserve.”

Cona is a Hillsborough County native and the current president/CEO of the Associated Builders and Contractors Florida Gulf Coast Chapter, a position he has held for five years. He and his wife, Audra, have two children enrolled in Hillsborough public schools. Though School Board races are nonpartisan, Cona is a Republican who once ran for Hillsborough County Commission.

He is the first candidate to declare for the race to replace current School Board member Susan Valdes, whose resignation from the seat is of questionable legitimacy. She is now running in the Democratic primary for House District 62.

The special election for the District 1 School Board seat will be on the 2018 ballot alongside the regularly scheduled elections for District 2, District 4 and District 6.

District 1 covers northwestern Hillsborough, including part of Tampa and the communities of Egypt Lake, Keystone, Leto, Town ‘n’ Country and Westchase. The winner of the nonpartisan election will serve out the remainder of Valdes’ term, which runs through 2020.

#13 on list of Tampa Bay’s Most Powerful Politicians — Sandra Murman

Current Hillsborough County Commission Chair Sandra Murman was first elected to her District 1 seat in 2010. Her district includes Ruskin, Gibsonton, parts of South Tampa, Town ‘n’ Country and Keystone.

At the dais, Murman, a Republican, has taken some credit for steering the transit debate in 2016 after the Go Hillsborough initiative tanked — even though her handling of the issue in 2015 cost Murman her status as chair the following year.

In late 2017, a majority of commissioners elected to give her another go at chairmanship this year. With that came a huge pay bump as well as a number of ceremonial duties.

The former state lawmaker is widely seen as a moderating force at the dais, which can potentially result in good policy for the county.

“Sandy Murman’s lead Hillsborough County through a period of extraordinary growth — she thoughtfully bridges party divides to make things happen,” said Southern Strategy Group’s Seth McKeel.

Her role in the Confederate monument debate was one of a catalyst. Last summer, as debate raged over whether to keep a controversial Jim Crow-era statue in place outside a county courthouse annex in downtown Tampa, Murman proposed asking voters what to do via referendum. While she had at one point against removing the monument, she changed her vote after talking to her friend Tom Scarritt, who offered a handsome sum to help cover moving it to a private site.

That’s not the only aspect of her record that paints Murman as a peacemaker. Her recent vote to expand the waiting period for buying a gun in Hillsborough County suggests an independent streak — or at very least a savvy one.

Fundraising has been relatively slow for Murman in recent months, and as the Tampa Bay Times’ William March noted in May, it’s possibly the reason she chose to finish her term through 2020 rather than vie for District 7 (even though she denied this multiple times previously).

“I respect her for the work we have done together on the Early Learning Coalition and for her strong advocacy for children,” says Tampa businessman Akash Patel, a Republican candidate for Hillsborough County Commission District 7.

Murman ranked No. 22 last year, which places her among the elected officials with the steepest climbs over last year.

For a complete explanation of how this list was created and who made up the panel that amassed it, please read here.

#14 on list of Tampa Bay’s Most Powerful Politicians — Tom Lee

State Sen. Tom Lee of Senate District 20 generated plenty of buzz over the last year as Tampa Bay politicos speculated his next steps: a run for state chief financial officer? Perhaps a go at outgoing Congressman Dennis Ross’s open seat?

But the Thonotosassa Republican went with none of the above — and that could shape up to be a wise choice given the current political climate.

He was elected to the Senate in 2012 and later re-elected in 2016. He had previously served on the Senate from 1996 to 2006, including as Senate president from 2004 to 2006. He ran for CFO and lost to Alex Sink in 2006 — so it makes sense that another statewide run in a year that might not treat Republicans all that well wouldn’t appeal to him.

Lee’s district, SD 20, consists of parts of Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk counties.

Assuming he stays in his current seat, Lee will remain a key moderating voice in the Senate.

Well-liked by Republicans and Democrats alike, Lee is chair of the Senate Committee on Community Affairs, and sits on five other committees, including Education as well as Ethics and Elections.

He won praise during his tenure on the Constitution Revision Commission with his proposed greyhound racing ban. Popular with just about everyone but members of the racing industry, it was one of a handful of CRC-passed measures that will be on the November ballot.

And he’s not afraid to buck his party. Earlier this year, Lee criticized the controversial education bill, calling a measure targeting teachers’ unions “mean-spirited.” He offered multiple amendments to soften that provision. When they didn’t take, he voted against it.

Lee may not try to climb the political ladder this year, but with his independent spirit and his obvious drive, the future ought to look pretty bright for him.

Lee ranked No. 10 in 2017.

For a complete explanation of how this list was created and who made up the panel that amassed it, please read here.

Melissa Howard HD 73

Melissa Howard rebuts allegation that she’s a former Democrat

Tommy Gregory, a Republican candidate for House District 73, threw some serious shade at primary opponent Melissa Howard this week, but it looks like he should double check his sources.

At issue is Howard’s party affiliation, not an uncommon avenue of attack in the primary season.

Earlier this week, the Gregory campaign alleged that Howard is still registered to vote in Ohio and, based on voter registration records from that state, that she was a registered Democrat as recently as 2010.

The campaign used that data to question whether Howard is “even allowed to be on the ballot” and whether she is “misleading voters” in the Sarasota County district by masquerading as a Republican.

The allegations were seemingly backed up with pictures of the voter rolls giving credence to those supposed inconsistencies, but it’s a good thing they didn’t take it a step further by presenting them as fact, or else there would be a walk back in order.

As nearly any Floridian or Ohioan can attest, Ohio isn’t Florida. In this case, Ohio has different election rules and their state voter rolls record information differently than Florida’s.

Here’s what Hamilton County (Ohio) Election Administrator Chuck Eckert said when Howard reached out for an official explanation to quash the attack before it got roots:

“Under Ohio election law, political party affiliation is done by requesting the ballot type for the political party with which you wish to be affiliated in a Partisan Primary Election. Your voting history reflects only General Election activity, no partisan primary election activity.”

After nabbing that official statement from someone who is familiar with how Ohio handles voter data, Howard reiterated she has “always been and voted for Republicans.”

Believing Howard is a dyed-in-the-wool Republican doesn’t take a vivid imagination — her campaign treasurer is none other than current HD 73 Rep. Joe Gruters, who is both the current chair of the Republican Party of Sarasota and was a co-chairman on President Donald Trump’s winning Florida campaign.

Howard and Gregory are the only two Republicans vying for HD 73, a GOP stronghold that covers parts of Manatee and Sarasota County. Both candidates have built six-figure war chests in the two months they’ve been running for the seat. HD 73 is open due to current Gruters’ decision to run for the Senate seat currently held by Sarasota Republican Sen. Greg Steube, who is running for Congress.

The primary election is Aug. 28.

#15 on list of Tampa Bay’s Most Powerful Politicians — Gus Bilirakis

In the time that’s elapsed since the noise that erupted around U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis in early 2017 died down following his brave decision to face angry constituents at a packed town hall, things have been pretty quiet for the Palm Harbor Republican.

That’s no surprise to anyone familiar with Bilirakis, 55, who tends to eschew political theater in favor of buckling down and getting things done. His district, Florida’s 12th Congressional District, comprises all of Pasco County as well as parts of northern Pinellas and northwestern Hillsborough counties. First elected to Congress in 2006, he is particularly active on veterans’ issues.

At a time when bitter divisions reign, Bilirakis is known for being likable and easy to work with.

“The nicest guy in Congress, and also the hardest working, Representative Bilirakis truly cares about his constituents and making Florida a better place to live,” said Southern Strategy Group’s Laura Boehmer.

Earlier this year, he scored a legislative win when the House unanimously passed a bill he sponsored that aims to strengthen air travel safety measures.

Following a WTSP report about “zombie campaigns” of former candidates that still spend money years after the politicking ends, Bilirakis teamed up with U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor on a bill targeting the practice. A Republican teaming up with a Democrat on a proposal that outlaws something that (however dubiously) puts money in fellow politicians’ pockets? That’s not something you see every day. But it speaks to Bilirakis’ character and his willingness to reach across on the aisle on important issues like accountability.

He faces a midterm challenger in Democrat Chris Hunter, a former federal prosecutor and FBI agent. CD 12 overwhelmingly went for Donald Trump in 2016, so it’s unclear whether a blue wave would reach Pasco County.

Bilirakis climbs up a notch this year; in 2017, he came in at No. 16.

Joe Henderson‘s take: “Maybe needs to consider the ‘weight’ of his words when planning talks to women’s groups in the future.”

For a complete explanation of how this list was created and who made up the panel that amassed it, please read here.

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