William March: Gun issues playing bigger role now in local races

Ripples from the shooting deaths of 17 stduents at a high school in Broward County have spread to political campaigns in Hillsborough County. [Wilfredo Lee   |   AP]
Ripples from the shooting deaths of 17 stduents at a high school in Broward County have spread to political campaigns in Hillsborough County. [Wilfredo Lee | AP]
Published February 22
Updated February 23

In the aftermath of the Broward County high school shooting, gun rights issues have jumped to the forefront of local legislative races.

Democratic challengers are calling out incumbents in Tampa legislative seats on their past stances on gun control.

"There are some key things I was advocating for and those haven’t changed, but gun reform is something I’m going to focus on more heavily," said Democrat Heather Kenyon Stahl, a first-time candidate challenging Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, in District 64.

Grant, like most Republican legislators, opposes a ban on assault-style weapons.

Stahl gave an impassioned speech to local Democrats on Monday night saying gun issues would become her top campaign issue.

"I got kind of fired up – the mama bear came out," she said later, speaking of her own four children in public schools.

Other examples of gun debate in local campaigns:

• Debra Bellanti, challenging Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, said she plans to be involved in a demonstration outside Toledo’s office by members of a new Facebook group, Democratic Moms of South Tampa, to occur late this month or early in March. Toledo has campaigned in the past on her NRA endorsement.

• Bob Buesing, challenging Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa, said his campaign may make use of a photo from a flier Young used in a 2010 campaign which showed her lying on an enlarged copy of the Constitution while aiming what appears to be an assault rifle.

• Fentrice Driskell, challenging Rep. Shawn Harrison, R-Tampa, this week blasted Harrison for hiring Benjamin Kelly, who disseminated conspiracy-theory internet video falsely claiming that Parkland shooting survivors were actors, not students. Harrison apologized and Kelly was fired.

James Waurishuk new Hillsborough GOP chair

James Waurishuk, an Air Force intelligence veteran who campaigned as a strong Donald Trump backer, defeated long-time party activist and political consultant April Schiff to become the new Hillsborough County Republican Party chairman.

Waurishuk said boosting fundraising, partly by increasing the number of major fundraising events, and ending the divisiveness that has plagued the local party will be his top goals.

He said he believes many party members who have left the organization will now return.

"I’ve been inundated with emails this morning from people saying, ‘I’m going to come back now.’ They saw disorganization, lack of unity, and they quit," he said the day after the election.

But the election may not have ended the divisiveness. Some party precinct representatives have quit in protest, and say others may, too.

"Some of us wanted someone who knows how to raise money, put teams together to do door-to-door and phone banking, and who’s inclusive of all sides," said Rebecca DeBoer, who said she resigned the night of the election along with her husband and two others she wouldn’t name.

Schiff expressed disillusionment.

In a written statement, she said the party once had about 500 precinct representatives, "but thanks to a small group of divisive individuals who thrive on personally attacking fellow Republicans, many members have abandoned" those positions.

"I fear the organization will continue to diminish in size and become even more irrelevant."

Future of two local House seats unclear

Assuming Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, runs for chief financial officer in November, Rep. Shawn Harrison probably will run for Lee’s Senate seat, leaving his House seat open.

With Democrat Fentrice Driskell in the race, which Republican may file?

Right now, the only name local GOP insiders can come up with is Jim Davison, New Tampa physician who lost narrowly to Luis Viera for Tampa City Council in 2016.

Davison won’t rule it out but won’t decide soon: "We’ll see how everything falls out."

Meanwhile, John Rodriguez, who was the favorite in the House District 62 Democratic primary to replace Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, has left the race to take a job as lobbyist for the city of St. Petersburg. Carlos Frontela is also dropping out, leaving only Michael Alvarez, who’s active in the Democratic Hispanic Caucus but isn’t well known.

The Democratic primary winner is a virtual lock to win the seat; no Republican has filed.

"I’m hearing nothing, zero, which is a little disconcerting," said Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a Democrat. "That’s a long-time Democratic seat. I would hope it would be a competitive race. I’m going to start going through my mind and see if I can think of anyone."

Contact William March at [email protected]

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