Hillsborough County Commission political makeup on the line with three races

The race to watch is between Democrat Pat Kemp and Republican Sandra Murman.

From setting millage rates to responding to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, Hillsborough County Commissioners make decisions that affect everyone. And what some of those decisions look like can depend on the commission’s partisan makeup.

Currently, Democrats constitute a one-vote majority, but there’s a chance that could shift on Tuesday.

Three commission seats are on the ballot: District 1 (South Tampa), District 3 (East Tampa/Riverview) and District 6 (countywide).

Here’s how things are shaking out in each of them.

District 6: The talk of the town

It’s a race pitting two incumbents against one another in a battle for the countywide seat.

Incumbent One is Commissioner Pat Kemp, a Democrat who actually holds the seat, and has since 2016. Incumbent Two is Commissioner Sandra Murman, a Republican terming out of her District 1 seat.

The big issue (no, not that one)

Both list the ongoing pandemic as their top concern at the moment (and both say science should factor into actions.)

Yet a much older, slower-moving disaster is at the heart of this race: Hillsborough County’s notoriously nightmarish gridlock.

Long affiliated with groups like the Sierra Club, Kemp prioritizes environmental conservation as well as robust public transit, which the county electorate voted to support with a sales tax boost in 2018, though it’s currently locked in a court battle. She supports using existing CSX train tracks for a commuter rail line from USF to downtown/South Tampa, more pedestrian-friendly infrastructure and curbing the urban sprawl that breeds traffic.

Murman, a moderate Republican, wants the county’s transit overhaul to include premium traffic lanes, improvements to existing roads and enhancing the bus system. 

The barbs

Both camps have been making full use of the ammunition available to them. 

Kemp’s side has been hammering Murman over her 2018 vote against the removal of a Confederate monument from the grounds of the federal courthouse in downtown Tampa. 

They’ve stopped short of painting Murman as pro-Trump, since Murman hasn’t openly embraced the President, who is unpopular in blue Hillsborough County.

Murman’s side has attacked Kemp as an ethically challenged left-wing activist.

In an email to Florida politics, Murman called Kemp “an extreme activist under two ethics investigations.”

The “investigations” she’s likely referring to appear politically motivated. They stem from two right-wing activists’ complaints to the Florida Bar that allege Kemp is practicing law without a license. Kemp has a law degree, but isn’t currently licensed to practice. They claim that her using phrases like “as a lawyer” during dais discussions constitutes practicing without a license.

Whether voters actually care about such semantics is unclear.

Where things stand

Both candidates have been raising big and spending big.

A recent St. Pete Polls survey shows Kemp leading Murman by 5 points. Democrats have a notable advantage in Hillsborough: 39% of registered voters are Democrats and 31% are Republicans. 

Murman, meanwhile, has outraised Kemp $467,638 to $309,559, records show.

Party makeup may be less of a factor here than in other races.

Some Democrats have crossed party lines to support Murman, including outgoing District 3 County Commissioner Les Miller, a Democrat.

Democratic political consultant Bryan Farris said moderate Democrats who live in affluent South Tampa may cross party lines for Murman, whom they may know through her work with the Girl Scouts of America and AIDS awareness groups.

“Sandy has some really good Democratic support in South Tampa. A lot of South Tampa Democrats know Sandy and they like her,” Farris said.

It’s unclear whether that support is enough to bring Murman across the line.

Given the sheer volume of expected Democratic turnout countywide, Farris says it might not be.

“I think Pat Kemp wins in a squeaker,” he said.

The District 3 seat

Term limits for Miller make for an open commission seat in a district that covers East Tampa. It’s an area where African Americans make up 40% of the population. Democrats make up the vast majority of the electorate here. Even in years when Democrats are underperforming everywhere else, Republicans tend to not have much of a shot here and races tend to be settled in crowded Democratic primaries.

Local politicos were surprised when retired Hillsborough County administrator Gwen Myers bested the likes of former Commissioner Thomas Scott in the five-person August primary. She beat Scott by just 227 votes, then all four opponents quickly endorsed her.

Republican Maura Cruz Lanz, didn’t even have a primary. The newcomer candidate touts her Cuban heritage and is passionate about reigning in government spending. In September, she made waves when she said some people who lack permanent shelter “really just want to stay homeless.”

Myers, meanwhile, is a strong advocate for overhauling public transit, namely via the 2018 All for Transportation initiative, which she worked to help pass.

Myers has raised $99,500.97, an amount that dwarfs Cruz Lanz’s $18,341, county records show.

In the heavily Democratic district, Lanz has little chance of victory.

The District 1 seat

Democrats are hoping to flip this South Tampa seat, which is the one Murman is leaving because of term limits.

Democrat Harry Cohen, a former Tampa City Council member well known among local politicos, won the primary against Jen McDonald.

Republican Scott Levinson, a youth sports administrator, was dramatically outspent by his better-known primary opponent Tony Morejon. He has said he’s running to fight for government accountability and transparency. 

Cohen, meanwhile, wants to focus on the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis and its economic fallout and, in the longer term, the county’s transit infrastructure.

Political observers on both sides of the aisle say Coen shouldn’t have much of a challenge winning the seat. 

Cohen has raised $218,130, while Levinson has raised just $19,753, records show.

The bottom line

With Myers’ race practically guaranteed, the races in District 6 and District 1 are the ones to watch in terms of what the new political makeup on the Commission will be.

If Murman beats Kemp and Levinson manages to overcome Cohen, the current 4-3 majority for Democrats would shift to a 4-3 majority for Republicans. If Cohen and Kemp both win, Democrats would gain another seat, shifting their advantage to 5-2. Meanwhile, if Murman and Cohen won, the makeup would remain the same.

Kate Bradshaw

Kate Bradshaw is a Florida-based journalist, writer and editor. She is a former staff writer at the Tampa Tribune news/politics editor at Creative Loafing Tampa Bay.


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