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#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.

#16 on list of Tampa Bay’s Most Powerful Politicians — Charlie Crist

It’s not often a freshman officeholder whose party is in the minority makes a most-powerful list. Although, politicians like U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist aren’t exactly common, either.

The former Florida governor already had star power to spare when he narrowly defeated Republican incumbent David Jolly in the 2016 race for Florida’s 13th Congressional District seat, which covers most of Pinellas County, save for its northernmost reaches.

The Republican-turned-NPA-turned-Democrat has had a busy year. He was a vocal critic of the GOP tax cut as well as his former party’s attempts to chip away at the Affordable Care Act — his criticisms got the attention of the National Republican Congressional Committee more than once.

Crist, 61, was a highly visible backer of St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman in his uphill battle for re-election.

Whenever his constituents rally for stronger gun laws or a ban on offshore drilling, if he can be there, he will be. Crist is always at home speaking in front of a friendly crowd. That his presence behind the podium usually draws TV news cameras can’t be a bad thing for a cause, either.

He’s also got a knack for constituent service. Take freeFall Theatre in west St. Petersburg. After Hurricane Irma caused extensive damage to the roof of the performance space, Crist helped the theater company land a large Small Business Association loan to cover its repairs.

Although the tendency to try jump to higher office when it’s opportune has earned him criticism more than once, Crist doesn’t appear to be going anywhere soon. Rumors about a possible run for governor were DOA. last year. He started fundraising for re-election as soon as he took office, and with help from the likes of Nancy Pelosi, who recently headlined a fundraiser for him, Crist’s war chest now exceeds $2 million. And despite the two unknown Republicans currently duking it out in a primary for a chance to challenge Crist, CD 13 will more than likely stay blue.

Crist’s ranking fell somewhat this year; he was No. 13 on this list in 2017. That’s understandable, given the limitations of being a first-termer and a member of the underdog party.

Joe Henderson‘s take: “He has a sweet gig, but how until he gets bored with being only one of 435 members of the U.S. House?”

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

Aakash Patel

Kiran Patel endorses Aakash Patel for Hillsborough commission

Republican Aakash Patel picked up an endorsement from respected Tampa cardiologist and philanthropist Kiran Patel (no relation) for his bid to replace retiring Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham in the fall.

“It is my pleasure to endorse Aakash in his quest for Hillsborough County Commission. I am a firm believer that the next generation of Indian Americans should make even greater efforts to positively impact our communities and our nation, and Aakash has worked diligently to accomplish much and will do more as he continues his public service,” Kiran Patel said.

“I have seen his successes as he has grown his business and his efforts to make early childhood education accessible to more families in Hillsborough County. I look forward to celebrating Aakash’s success and his future accomplishments.”

The two Patels have known each other for more than 20 years, working together when Dr. Patel lead the International Indian Film Festival events in Tampa and Aakash served on the Host Committee. Both have also been actively involved in the Indo-US Chamber of Commerce.

“I am extremely honored to have the support of Dr. Patel. He has consistently been a role model for me as he demonstrates his compassion by giving back to our community. I sincerely appreciate him for his support as I move forward toward serving on the Hillsborough County Commission,” Aakash Patel said.

Aakash Patel runs a business consulting firm and has also been appointed chair of the Early Learning Coalition of Hillsborough County and to the Florida Early Learning Advisory Council by Gov. Rick Scott.

Before this week’s endorsement, Patel’s Hillsborough Commission campaign has earned the backing of Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, Northwest Florida U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, former House Speaker Will Weatherford, Zephyrhills Rep. Danny Burgess and Sarasota Rep. Joe Gruters, among others.

Patel originally filed to succeed Sandra Murman in the District 1 seat on the Hillsborough County Commission, but her recent decision to serve out the remainder of her term led him to switch his campaign over to the countywide District 7 race.

He had raised more than $450,000 for his campaign before making the jump, setting him up as the fundraising leader in the eight-person field.

Hillsborough elections supervisor played favorites with Susan Valdes

There’s something fishy going on at Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections office, says one Democratic consultant.

As previously reported, Susan Valdes is eyeing a run for the Florida House, for the seat being vacated by Janet Cruz. In preparation for a bid for House District 62, Valdes resigned her seat on the Hillsborough County School Board just before the deadline.

At least that’s what the Supervisor of Elections office says.

“Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer received a resignation letter on Friday, June 8, at 7:30 p.m. from Susan Valdes, who currently serves as District 1 School Board Member,” the office said in a Monday release, which also served to announce the District 1 School Board seat would be on the 2018 ballot.

That press release came after the supervisor’s office told Tampa Bay Times reporter William March that Valdes had not resigned by the deadline. Tom Alte, a consultant working with the Michael Alvarez campaign, got the same answer at first — with the added detail that the resignation letter was rejected — before he found out supervisor’s office was taking the “unprecedented” step of reconsidering that decision.

“This is something that wouldn’t be done for any other candidate,” Alte said. “It very clearly violates the statute.”

Since Monday’s decision, Alte has tried to figure out what exactly happened behind the scenes that made the supervisor’s office to reverse course and accept the resignation letter, but says he’s being stonewalled.

He said a public records request for emails to and from Valdes’ official School Board email address over the past week was almost immediately denied for being “too broad.” An amended request for emails only relating to her resignation letter has not gotten a response.

Grayson Kamm, a communications and media officer for Hillsborough County Public Schools, refutes those claims. In a statement to Florida Politics, he said Alte’s records request was never denied, nor are any public records requests.

“We recognized his request for ‘all communications regarding Susan Valdes from May 1st to today’ would a) take a considerable amount of time to gather, and b) 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,” Kamm said.

“Because of those two reasons, we called Mr. Alte to see if we could help more closely figure out what he was looking for and potentially get him the records he was looking for more quickly.

“In the phone conversation, he gave a more detailed description of what he was seeking; we processed that request and have provided it to him — it is certainly not the case where that request ‘has not gotten a response.’

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

What Alte did receive is a timestamped email confirming the resignation letter came in at 7:30 p.m., well after the 5 p.m. closing time at the supervisor’s office. He also received confirmation from Mary Helen Farris, general counsel at Hillsborough County Attorney’s Office, that the Friday email was the first time the office received any paperwork relating to Valdes’ resignation.

Ironically, Alte was also told that supervisor’s office staff were slow to respond because they were getting a refresher course on how to do their jobs without political bias.

If the supervisor’s office has decided to stay open later, as it did Friday, maybe Latimer could let the rest of the county know rather than cater to a constituency of one. Otherwise, it seems another few rounds of training are in order.

Todd Marks

Todd Marks moves Hillsborough Commission campaign to countywide District 7

Tampa attorney Todd Marks announced Tuesday that he’s entering the race for the District 7 seat on the Hillsborough County Commission, to replace retiring Commissioner Al Higginbotham.

“I look forward to sharing my vision of a leaner county government that keeps taxes low and stays out-of-the-way of small business and land owners and holds the bureaucrats accountable,” Marks said. “I am the only consistent conservative candidate with the background and experience required to make tough decisions when it comes to growth, transportation and public safety.”

Marks, who runs Westchase Law and Westchase Title, was previously a candidate for the District 1 seat currently held by Commissioner Sandy Murman. Murman had planned to run for countywide District 7 seat this year but opted to serve out the remainder of her term in District 1.

Included in Marks’ announcement were endorsements from several Republican elected officials in the Tampa area, including Murman, state Sen. Dana Young and state Reps. Jackie Toledo and Lawrence McClure. Also among the 17 endorsements announced Tuesday were former Jeb Bush and Dick Cheney Chief of Staff Kathleen Shanahan and former Tampa Chamber President Mike Griffin.

“I have known Todd Marks for many years and am excited that he has chosen to run for the Hillsborough County Commission, District 7 seat. As a successful businessman, he will add an important voice for economic development and pro-business policies to our County Commission. In addition, Todd Marks shares my commitment to the environment. We can always count on Todd to protect our water, our children and our quality of life. I ask all Republicans to join me in supporting Todd Marks,” Young said.

Marks joins seven other candidates in the District 7 race including fellow Republican Aakash Patel, who was his chief primary rival when both were candidates for the District 1 seat.

Of the other six candidates in the race, only Democrat Kimberly Overman has posted any substantial fundraising numbers. She has raised nearly $35,000 and has about $13,000 in the bank.

When Patel and Marks bring over the funds from the scrubbed District 1 campaign they are set to take the No. 1 and No. 2 spots in fundraising, respectively. Patel had raised $450,000 as of May 31, while Marks had raised nearly $85,000.

#17 on list of Tampa Bay’s Most Powerful Politicians — Dana Young

Ranking for Tampa’s Republican state Senator on this list somewhat hinges on a key decision: whether or not Dana Young plans on running for Senate President for 2022-24.

Citing time constraints stemming from more immediate commitments (i.e., the 2018 Legislative Session), she dropped that bid earlier this year.

Young did, however, manage to get a good number of bills heard in 2018, including, perhaps surprisingly for a Republican, a fracking ban. Though it died in committee, as did another bill she sponsored that would have dedicated money for innovative transit projects in Tampa Bay, Young’s backing of such bills helped solidify her reputation as a lawmaker who’s unafraid to reach across the aisle. Her bill holding telemarketers accountable for ignoring do-not-call lists unanimously passed the House and Senate. So did her bill requiring doctors and midwives to report all “adverse” incidents relating to out-of-hospital births to the state. That bill passed unanimously in both chambers.

“Dana Young is hands down one of the most effective and hardest working members of the legislature,” said Southern Strategy Group’s Sydney Ridley. “She is a master at building coalitions and getting things done for her community.”

On the flip side, she co-introduced a controversial bill that brought USF’s St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee campus under control of the USF system’s main campus in Tampa, a piece of legislation that left the Democratic wing of Tampa Bay’s Legislative Delegation more than a little peeved.

Young won her seat over her opponent, Democrat Bob Buesing, by about seven points in 2016 after serving three terms in the House. At the time, Senate District 18 was a freshly drawn swing district. She won it rather easily then, in part because Joe Redner took about 9 percent of the vote in his nonparty bid for the seat. Young could have a tough time this year, given the possible blue wave and a formidable challenge in House Minority Leader Janet Cruz-Rifkin, who has shown some fundraising prowess (Buesing had initially challenged Young for a second time, but dropped his bid when Cruz jumped in). A boon for Young, though, is that she’s a particularly astute fundraiser. Young’s campaign has taken in nearly $426,000 as of late May. Her PAC, Friends of Dana Young, has meanwhile amassed a total north of $2.3 million.

Jack Latvala’s unexpected departure from the Senate due to allegations of sexual misconduct left a huge representation void for Tampa Bay in the state Legislature. Young might not have managed to completely fill it — Latvala was appropriations chair, after all. But Young in many ways embodies the largely moderate spirit of Tampa Bay politics. The big question is whether the war chest she’s amassed will be enough to convince voters, come November, that she’s a far cry from Donald Trump.

“Her strong position on protecting our environment shows true strength and dedication to important Florida issues others often overlook,” says Tampa businessman Akash Patel, a Republican candidate for Hillsborough County Commission District 7.

She came in No. 12 in 2017.

Joe Henderson‘s take: “Facing her toughest election fight yet, but she has lots of money and endorsements.”

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

#18 on list of Tampa Bay’s Most Powerful Politicians — Bob Gualtieri

As sheriff of the most densely populated county in the state, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri’s role goes well beyond overseeing the department’s day-to-day. He’s often caught in the middle when hot-button national issues and law enforcement collide — and that’s a responsibility he appears to embrace.

Gualtieri first took office in 2011. He successfully fended off a tough re-election challenge from former Sheriff Everett Rice the following year and easily won another term four years later.

Though he’s sheriff in a county with an incredibly diverse constituency, he’s never shied away from his espousal of Republican politics. He’s often a presence at campaign rallies for Republican candidates.

A top cop being a card-carrying member of the GOP certainly doesn’t make Gualtieri unique.

What does make him stand out is his willingness to have a dialogue with those who don’t agree with him.

Take immigration.

Earlier this year, Gualtieri took a ton of flak for spearheading a controversial agreement between 17 Florida county sheriffs and Immigration and Customs Enforcement that critics. It stipulated that the 17 agencies would hold undocumented immigrants arrested and released on unrelated charges for 48 hours to give ICE a chance to pick them up and, likely, deport them.

He could have ignored the people who disagree with him, but he chose dialogue. In April, he participated in a debate with members of the Florida Immigration Coalition at Allendale Methodist Church, a hub of progressive activity in St. Petersburg. It’s highly doubtful any minds were changed, but in an ultra-polarized political climate like this one, to even participate in a conversation with ideological opposites is brave.

He also wasn’t afraid to take part in the complex policy debate that took shape in the wake of the Parkland massacre.

In March, Gualtieri was tapped to lead a commission that included state Sen. Lauren Book, a South Florida Democrat, and two fathers of murdered Parkland students on the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which aims to examine the shooting and what could have been done differently to save lives.

He’s also been a large part of the local conversation about how to fund the upcoming batch of armed school resource officers the state now mandates. That, of course, requires a dialogue with the majority-Democrat Pinellas County Commission, an entity with which he enjoys a positive relationship despite political differences.

“Mutually respected by both Republicans and Democrats statewide, Sheriff Gualtieri has one of the best relationships in history with his County Commission and has also been a powerful policy advocate in Tallahassee,” Southern Strategy Group’s Laura Boehmer said.

Given his passion, media presence and talent, one might be inclined to wonder whether he has any sights on a run for the legislature, Congress or something else in 2020. Stay tuned.

Gualtieri was No. 14 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.

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