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Adam Hattersley, Alan Cohn square off in heated candidate forum

A third Democrat, Jesse Philippe also weighed in during a Tampa Tiger Bay digital forum.

A candidate forum for Florida’s 15th Congressional District got heated Friday when Democratic rivals Rep. Adam Hattersley and former investigative journalist Alan Cohn sparred over support for the ongoing George Floyd protests.

A third Democrat, Jesse Philippe also weighed in during the one-hour Tampa Tiger Bay digital forum.

Cohn wasted no time in blasting Hattersley, an incumbent state representative, for a Thursday email soliciting campaign contributions alongside pleas for an end to systemic racism and police brutality.

“One thing I will not do is raise money off of what we’re going through right now,” Cohn said.

Hattersley apologized for the email, not for its content, which supported ongoing protests and demands for reform, but for its inclusion of a campaign donation link.

“That shouldn’t have been there,” Hattersley said.

Hattersley claimed news of the email, which was published on this website, was a paid political hit piece, referencing Cohn’s past political advertisements on the site.

Cohn’s campaign has advertised with Florida Politics, a practice common among various news media outlets who derive operating revenue from advertising dollars.

Hattersley also defended the absence of references to Black Lives Matter in his email, a reference Cohn included in his own email, which sought donations not for his campaign, but for organizations directly supporting protesters including Black Lives Matter.

“I have repeatedly said black lives matter. I’m saying it again now. Black lives matter,” Hattersley said.

The brief but fiery back and forth set the tone for what was a heated forum pitting Hattersley and Cohn against one another with Philippe, the only African American in the race, trying to carve out his own lane as a political outsider.

Cohn doesn’t have direct political experience, but he has run for Congress before and worked with politicians for years as an investigative reporter covering politics.

The three Democrats are vying for the Democratic nomination to take on incumbent U.S. Rep. Ross Spano in the November general election.

Cohn attempted to claim the left lane in the race, painting Hattersley as a “Blue Dog” Democrat.

He claimed Hattersley didn’t support raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, playing a Fox News 13 clip of Hattersley saying “not necessarily to $15 an hour” in response to a question about whether he supports raising the minimum wage.

While Hattersley didn’t say so in that clip, he has long-supported a $15 minimum wage, including in his previous bid for Florida House. His current campaign website lists it as a priority.

The clip played only the first few seconds of Hattersley’s answer and left out context in which Hattersley said he supported raising the minimum wage, but to do so with an incremental approach beginning at $10.10, a measure House Democrats have already approved, but that the Republican-controlled Senate has let wither.

“$15 an hour it’s the bare minimum you need to be able to support yourself,” Hattersley said Friday. “You’re out of money each month before even buying food.”

The Cohn campaign has maintained Hattersley has wavered on the issue and hasn’t taken as strong a stance, a point Cohn reiterated during the Tiger Bay forum, and setting up what is likely to be a key talking point in his primary campaign.

The candidates also squared off on federal medical marijuana legalization.

Hattersley touted Florida’s medical cannabis law and referenced the issue, as did Philippe, as a state’s right issue.

“It helps pay for public schools, it helps pay for roads and it is not a detriment on criminal activity,” Hattersley said in support of Florida’s law.

Cohn blasted both of his primary opponents, noting that cannabis is still classified as a Schedule 1 drug.

“You have to know these things. Companies that specialize in medical cannabis can’t do their banking in the regular way,” Cohn said. “That is what has to change at the federal level.”

The three candidates were all in lockstep on banning assault weapons.

Both Hattersley and Philippe have military experience. Philippe said he spent “hours and hours” training to use assault weapons.

“That amount of training that is needed … it takes years and years of experience and learning,” Philippe said. “Those types of weapons should not be one our streets. You do not need an assault weapon to protect yourself.”

“I understand the gravity and the responsibility of a firearm,” Hattersley concurred, noting that military assault weapons are not a tool to “show how macho” a person is and shouldn’t be in the hands of civilians or police.

The three also agreed on another matter: Spano must be defeated in November.

Hattersley, however, was the only candidate to say he would continue fighting to unseat Spano even if he is not the Democratic nominee.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in Tampa Bay since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as senior reporter for WMNF News. Janelle has a lust for politics and policy. When she’s not bringing you the day’s news, you might find Janelle enjoying nature with her husband, children and two dogs. You can reach Janelle at Janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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