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Candidates eager to campaign in Hillsborough file papers as soon as they can

By William March, Times Correspondent
Published: January 3, 2018 Updated: January 3, 2018 at 09:02 PM
Debra Bellanti, a candidate for state House of Representatives from Hillsborough. 1/3/18

As election year 2018 opened for business this week, several candidates jumped immediately into Hillsborough County Commission and legislative races, including a couple of prominent Democrats hoping for an anti-Trump wave as they challenge incumbent Republican officeholders.

Hillsborough Democrats hope to increase their minority on the county board from two to three of the seven commissioners, or possibly win a majority, in 2018.

Things were quieter in Pinellas County, where there are fewer competitive local seats on the 2018 ballot. But there’s still talk of possible additional candidates in races including the state Senate seat being vacated by Jack Latvala.

Among the Tampa filings:

• Marketing executive Debra Bellanti put in her paperwork Tuesday to challenge Republican state Rep. Jackie Toledo in House District 60.

• Veteran civic and environmental activist Mariella Smith filed to run for a countywide commission seat against Republican Commissioner Victor Crist. Crist is seeking to jump from his term-limited district seat to a countywide seat.

• Republican Todd Marks filed for the District 1 commission seat expected to be vacated by Commissioner Sandy Murman, who’s also facing a term limit and hopes to move to a countywide seat.

• In the east Hillsborough County District 4 race, meanwhile, Democratic Party activist Andrew Davis of Gibsonton filed against incumbent Republican Stacy White.

Bellanti, Davis and Smith are making their first runs for office.

Bellanti, who runs her own marketing firm largely serving health care companies, said she has wanted to run for legislative office for years because of frustration at the Legislature’s actions in education, development and pre-emption of local government authority.

"I’m not running because of Trump, but the atmosphere has put some wind at my back," she said.

Bellanti acknowledged that the state Democratic Party doesn’t consider the race one of its top chances to flip a House seat but said her extensive business ties will bring her bipartisan support.

Smith said she hopes a grass roots campaign arising out of her past activism on environmental and development issues, and energized by the political climate, can help her overcome Crist’s advantages in name recognition and fundraising.

"We need to stop the musical chairs game by these politicians who are trying to hold onto power beyond the voter-enacted term limits … and just keep doing things the same old way with lobbyists, cronies and special interests," she said.

The race already includes four Democrats, one of whom, party activist Mark Nash, has raised substantial campaign money, $39,940, since filing in September, and two other Republicans.

Marks, a lawyer and entrepreneur, has run for the state House seat and been active in GOP causes.

He’ll face a primary against Aakash Patel, and then probably a general election campaign against Democratic state Rep. Janet Cruz, who is term-limited in her legislative seat and has already filed for the commission race.

With the well-known Cruz as their candidate, Democrats consider this race their best shot at winning a third commissioner’s seat. But Marks is likely to have the backing of a circle of conservative east Hillsborough Republicans led by longtime political activist Sam Rashid. Marks said there’s "a strong desire for a consistent conservative candidate."

District 1 covers western Hillsborough from Keystone through Tampa and down to South Shore.

No challenger had filed as of Wednesday against two Tampa GOP legislators some local Democrats believe there is a chance of unseating — Rep. Sean Harrison and Sen. Dana Young. Lawyer Bob Buesing, who ran unsuccessfully against Young in 2016, is still mulling a rematch.

The rush of candidate filings is a function of the calendar.

With the holidays over, it’s time to get 2018 campaigns off the ground, and candidates want a full month of fundraising to show an impressive total on their first campaign finance reports.

That made Tuesday, the first business day of the month and year, a good day to file for those who’ve been testing the water and found it inviting.

"Pinellas is much quieter and less rambunctious this year than Hillsborough," said lobbyist and political activist Todd Pressman. "In Hillsborough you have strong Democratic forces in the city coming into conflict with strong Republican forces in the county."

St. Petersburg lawyer and civic activist Keisha Bell, who writes a column for the Weekly Challenger community newspaper, said Tuesday she will file to run in a Democratic primary against state Rep. Wengay Newton and another challenger already filed, Vito Sheeley.

Gov. Rick Scott hasn’t yet set a date for a special election to replace Sen. Latvala, but former state Rep. Ed Hooper has the backing of GOP leaders for the Republican nomination.

Susan McGrath, chairman of the Pinellas Democratic Party, said she knows of Democrats considering running, in addition to Bernie Fensterwald, who has filed, but none who are ready to announce.

Speculation among Democrats has focused on former state Rep. Amanda Murphy of New Port Richey and Dunedin Mayor Julie Bujalski.

Contact William March at [email protected]