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Democrats will still campaign against a departing Dennis Ross

Andrew Learned

Most candidates in (or soon to be in) the Democratic primary for Florida’s 15th Congressional District, left open by the retirement of Lakeland Republican Dennis Ross, will likely agree on many issues, especially over safety nets.

But there will be a crucial difference, said Andrew Learned, a Valrico Democrat seeking the office.

“Veterans and the military lack a voice,” said Learned, an eight-year veteran of the Navy and currently a lieutenant senior grade in the U.S. Navy Reserve unit headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

He said he has had three tours in the Middle East and saw the troubles fellow service members had not only there, but on their return.

“The number of veterans in Congress is one of the lowest since World War II,” Learned said. “There are those who need help from the Veterans Affairs and not getting it and families of deployed military are in need of care.”

Learned, 31, was born in Sarasota and graduated from high school in Fort Myers. He has lived in Hillsborough County for the past several years attending the University of Tampa and is the owner of the Valrico GradePower Learning Center, a franchise which he acquired in 2014.

In 2016, he said, he was activated and deployed for a year as lead surface planer for Task Force 51/Marine brigade in Bahrain.

Learned filed to run for the post last summer. Until last week he had been running against Ross, and it would seem hard to stop even now that the incumbent decided not to seek re-election. It is likely to be the political mantra for the six Democrats still in the race.

Despite Ross’ leaving, Learned said he blames some of the conditions in the district and the nation on Ross’ “ultraconservative” actions, causing any Republican who may win the seat of carrying on the same activities.

“If you were to take back the break given to the trust fund babies (inheritance taxes) you could give an $8,600 to every schoolteacher in the nation. I have railed against Congressman Ross for not being able to move most (original) legislation except maybe renaming the Mulberry Post office. And supporting (the president’s) use of children health care to force a tax cut for millionaires is wrong,” Learned said.

“Facts are facts, and if we pretend they are otherwise, then we are in for worse trouble.”

The remarks are an indication of how this campaign might play out this summer with Democrats aiming for Ross and local issues rather than just President Donald Trump.

“I congratulate the Republicans in office for a cut after taking eight years in control of the House and Senate to finally do something about tax reform,” Learned said, “but to give a kickback to the wealthiest one percent of the population is wrong.”

So far, Learned is competing against James Gregory Pilkington of Indian Lakes Estates, Phil Hornback of Ruskin, Cameron Magnuson of Brandon, Raymond Pena Jr. of Lakeland and Jeffrey Rabinowitz of Clermont.

A sixth Democrat, Greg Williams of Lakeland, pulled out of his yearlong race for the seat last week and endorsed Learned.

Other Democrats could enter the primary for CD 15, but they would face attacks of opportunism from these candidates who were already in the race before Ross left.

Written By

Former Ledger of Lakeland columnist Bill Rufty is Central Florida political correspondent for SaintPetersBlog and Florida Politics. Rufty had been with the Ledger from 1985-2015, where, as political editor, he covered a wide range of beats, including local and state politics, the Lakeland City Commission, and the Florida Legislature. Ledger editor Lenore Devore said about Rufty’s 30-year career: “[He is] a man full of knowledge, a polling expert and a war history buff … who has a steel trap in his brain, remembering details most of us have long since forgotten.”

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