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Ten influencers who made a difference in Tampa Bay politics in 2019

From campaign victory to political scandal, these are the people who shaped 2019 politics.

It might have been an off-election year, but 2019 was a big deal in Tampa Bay area politics. After finally seeing a successful transportation referendum pass in late 2018, voters watched on this year as partisan politics threatened to undo it. The year also ushered in Tampa’s first openly gay mayor.

In St. Pete, an otherwise sleepy City Council election boasted a campaign trail scandal and hinted at potential political strategy in 2021. With 2019 coming to a close, Florida Politics is reflecting on those who made a difference in local politics this year.

The list was chosen not to include the apparent winners and losers, but rather to serve as a thought-provoking analysis on what happened, why it matters and who made it happen. Our list is not ranked and is in alphabetical order.

Sen. Janet Cruz

Cruz narrowly claimed victory to the Florida Senate in late 2018. She wasted no time getting to work in 2019.

Cruz filed, supported and fought for several bills in the 2019 Legislative Session. But one, in particular, highlights Cruz’s political might.

That is, if the Legislature doesn’t do it, she will.

That was evident in Cruz’s Get the Lead Out initiative she launched after the 2019 session concluded. After lawmakers failed to approve a bill that would have mandated water filters in drinking fountains at public schools built before 1986, where lead contamination is possible.

The Legislature punted on the issue because they were unable to determine an exact cost. Cruz independently studied the issue and found filters could be installed for as little as $20 per filter. Her Get the Lead Out campaign raised private funds and began this year installing filters at 136 Hillsborough public schools.

With her private success in pocket, Cruz is now taking the statewide ask back to the Legislature for the 2020 Session.

It seems a minuscule example of Cruz’s fiery passion for protecting her citizens. Still, it’s one of several issues she’s championing this year and sends a message to Florida lawmakers that she won’t back down from a fight.

Rep. Adam Hattersley

Hattersley scored a major victory in 2018, flipping House District 59 blue. But his effect on Tampa Bay area politics in 2019 is not about that victory — it’s about his next hurdle.

Hattersley announced this summer that after just one term, he would not be seeking a second in the Florida House. Instead, he jumped into the Congressional District 15 race in hopes of making Congressman Ross Spano, the Republican he replaced in the Florida House, a one-term Congressman.

Hattersley’s move is simultaneously a potentially huge win for Democrats and a potential catastrophe.

Hattersley’s 2018 momentum in his big win for the Florida Legislature gives him a reasonable shot at defeating Spano. The incumbent Republican is marred by scandal after he accepted illegal loans from two friends to fund his 2018 election. Spano is now under investigation for those loans and is ripe for a political take-down.

But Hattersley’s departure from state politics could also hinder Democrats. They have a good candidate in Andrew Learned to replace Hattersley in the Florida House. Learned is a veteran, which plays well among voters in the now swing district, and he’s also coming to the game with name recognition after running a Congressional primary campaign in 2018.

But without an incumbent in the race, the door is open for Republicans to take back the seat they lost.

Tyler Hudson (and crew)

Hudson was the frontman for the Hillsborough County All For Transportation referendum voters soundly approved in 2018. Joined by co-chairs Christina Barker, Kevin Thurman and Rena Frazier, Hudson lead a successful campaign on the heels of years of defeats in similar efforts.

The county unsuccessfully proposed a transit referendum in 2010 and then failed to even get another measure on the ballot in 2016. In 2014, Pinellas County voters soundly rejected a transit initiative there.

Hudson and his team found success by highlighting benefits to all Hillsborough residents. All For Transportation would not only benefit transit users in urban areas of the county, but it would also provide much-needed funding for roads and sidewalks in more suburban areas — a case previous campaigns failed to make.

But in 2019, Hudson and his team have been facing another challenge as Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White and resident Bob Emerson seek to undo the All For Transportation referendum in the Florida Supreme Court.

Hudson is using his experience as an attorney to work with the campaign’s legal team to defend the 1% sales tax. Its survival or demise will define the next several decades’ worth of transit and transportation improvements and set the stage for future transportation funding initiatives throughout the region.

Scott Orsini 

Not all political influencers make the list based on positive things. That’s the case for Orsini.

At the beginning of 2019, Orsini was an early candidate in the race to replace Charlie Gerdes in St. Pete City Council District 1. Right from the get-go, he appeared poised to sail to an easy victory, gathering up endorsements from Mayor Rick Kriseman, Gerdes and numerous other community leaders.

Come late June, his path to victory became blurred as reports of offensive tweets surfaced. Endorsers started dropping, and pressure began mounting. Just one week after that report, Orsini dropped out of the race.

Orsini’s fall from grace handed Republicans a second member on City Council. Had Orsini not fallen victim to Twitter scandal, he almost surely would have been elected, and the board’s overwhelming Democratic dominance would have continued with only Ed Montanari representing Republicans.

Instead, Robert Blackmon, a moderate Republican, slipped into Orsini’s place and easily defeated the other Democrat in the race, John Hornbeck.

Having two Republicans instead of just one won’t make a grand difference on contentious issues that could fall on party lines, but it does lend a potential conversation-shifting voice on the Council that will shape the board for at least four years (if not eight).

St. Pete City Council member Darden Rice

Rice is running for Mayor in 2021. In most conventional scenarios, her campaign wouldn’t start until at least mid to late-2020. But Rice got an early start forming a political committee to raise funds. She also hinted at some potential unconventional alliances.

On campaign finance, Rice launched her committee, Friends of Darden Rice, in January. She came out of the gate strong, raising more than $11,000 in the first month. As of the end of October, Rice has raised more than $100,000.

Her aggressive (and early) fundraising activity drew criticism from Kriseman even though he’s long been a Rice ally.

Further, Rice made some unlikely political alliances during the 2019 City Council election cycle. Rice backed Blackmon, a Republican, in the District 1 race even before Orsini dropped out. Blackmon ran with strong support from former Mayor Rick Baker and his allies.

On its own, that wouldn’t mean much, but Rice went on to endorse Trenia Cox for the District 5 race. Though Cox is a Democrat, she was running with support from Baker and his allies, including Rep. Chris Latvala, who helped manage her campaign.

The support suggests Rice might be planning to run with Baker’s backing, a move that has interesting implications in St. Pete politics. On the one hand, Baker’s name comes with automatic allegiance from a decent portion of loyal St. Pete voters. On the other, it could serve as a major turnoff to Rice’s progressive base that has supported her for years.

She may be hoping that base forgives the alliance while Baker helps push her over the edge against what is likely to be a tough challenge against Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch.

Congressman Ross Spano

Spano’s rocky 2019 could hand Democrats a Congressional District that has been red since the mid-90s.

The district, which includes east Hillsborough County and parts of Lake and Polk counties, has been under Republican control since 1995. The region is still red, but it’s trending more and more purple. Pair that with a major Spano blunder, and Democrats could have a shot at winning a district that might have only been a pipe dream before Spano’s brief tenure.

At issue are a pair of campaign loans Spano accepted during his 2018 campaign that he then turned around and loaned to his campaign as if the funds had come from his personal finances. Spano himself admitted the loans constituted a campaign finance violation, and he’s now under federal investigation.

Two Democrats are seeking the nomination to oust him from office — Hattersley and former Sarasota news anchor Alan Cohn. Either will have help from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The group has made Spano one of its top targets for 2020.

Rep. Jackie Toledo

Toledo did this year what lawmakers before her have failed to do for years. She successfully championed texting while driving legislation to make it a primary offense.

Before this year, thumbing a message on the phone while driving was technically illegal, but good luck to law enforcement officers wanting to enforce it. Under the old law, officers could only ticket a driver for texting if they were pulled over for a primary offense like speeding or running a red light.

Toledo’s leadership on the issue was an indicator of her ability to work across party lines to get controversial laws passed.

She’ll take that swagger with her into 2020 when she champions several new challenges including clamping down on Pharmacy Benefit Managers she says are driving up prescription drug prices for consumers and threatening neighborhood pharmacies and an effort to pass the Competitive Workforce Act to protect the LGBT+ community from workplace discrimination.

Tim Wagner

Wagner was the behind the scenes force behind Tampa Mayor Jane Castor’s landslide victory earlier this year.

The vote margin between the two candidates was shocking to most considering how much money candidates poured into the election. Straz spent nearly $5 million while Castor spent about $2 million.

Wagner led a team of about 1,000 volunteers. Wagner devised a winning strategy that included a groundswell of door-knocking in every corner of the city. For voters who tentatively supporter Castor already, volunteers made sure they kept it that way. For those who hadn’t heard of her, they introduced Castor as a day-one ready candidate armed with experience and plans.

Wagner played the early days of the campaign tight. They ran ads with substance. They targeted voters. They pushed the get out the vote effort. They clung to every vote while making sure to win over support at almost every campaign event leading up to the March 5 Municipal Election, of which there was at least one a week.

But heading into the runoff, Wagner faced an onslaught of spending and a surge in negative campaigning tactics.

Wagner stayed focused, a move many local political insiders contributed to Castor’s sound victory. The campaign made sure to present voters with detailed policies, but also, and more importantly, with evidence to show she could get it done.

Ashley Walker

Walker makes this year’s influence for all the same reasons as Wagner. She served as a top consultant on Castor’s campaign.

But lesser known is Walker’s work with All For Transportation. The core team credits her with much of their success.

And she did it while also playing a top role in the city’s most prominent campaign of the year.

See above on how Walker and the team managed.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White

Depending on who you ask, White lands on this list for all the wrong reasons.

Consider this — two of the nine other people on this list of political influencers are there because they helped All For Transportation succeed.

More than 60 percent of voters in Tampa’s election voted in favor of the transportation referendum.

White’s the reason it could get taken away.

White sued to have the tax overturned. He argued, among other things, that voters didn’t know what they were voting for and that the tax usurped county authority to appropriate revenue by establishing an Independent Oversight Committee to audit spending plans.

To some extent, he won. A lower court judge struck down provisions giving the IOC any potential veto authority over spending and removed the funding allocations determining which city or agency got what from the overall pool of tax revenue.

But the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners voted to restore those funding allocations, with, of course, White being the only no-vote.

Now he’s taken his case to the Florida Supreme Court, where the case is still pending and expecting to be heard the first week of February.

Until then, spending plans to begin transportation improvements throughout the county are on hold.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a die-hard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and contentious issues surrounding transit. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also a devoted wife and mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder.

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