For years, Hillsborough County’s fast-growing Southshore area was represented in Congress by a man from the other side of Florida whose sprawling district took in all or parts of a dozen largely rural counties.
That changed with the drawing of new districts to reflect population shifts measured in the 2010 census, and now the region south of the Alafia River falls within a district far more urban in nature.
Riverview, meet Sarasota.
In the Nov. 6 general election, Southshore’s 135,000 voters will help choose the Congress member representing District 16. They will choose between incumbent Vern Buchanan, a Republican first elected in 2006 who made his fortune in auto dealerships, and attorney David Shapiro, a Democrat who touts his work for clients denied government benefits.
Both choices are from the Sarasota area, as was the candidate Shapiro defeated Aug. 28 to win his party’s nomination.
But one in four registered voters in District 16 are from Hillsborough. They live in Gibsonton, Riverview, Fish Hawk, Apollo Beach, Sun City Center, Ruskin, Balm and Wimauma. It’s a region where online retailer Amazon located its huge fulfillment center and where much of the county’s construction activity is centered — residential, educational, medical and industrial.
The Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization estimates that the population of the Southshore area grew 11 percent from 2010 to 2015, double the rate of the county as a whole. Southshore’s total population approaches 200,000.
The numbers mean that the District 16 candidates — as well as Hillsborough voters — have some work to do in building this new relationship between the central Gulf Coast and Washington.
Many of the issues facing Southshore are growth-related and fall under the jurisdiction of local governments — a transportation system and public schools that are failing to keep up and a heavy environmental toll on bays and rivers that define the region.
But the region’s voters can take heart in knowing that their interests are more aligned with the new congressional district than with the old. District 16 consists of just three counties now and most of the population lives in urban coastal areas. Curiously, the Sarasota area was split up in the redistricting process so that it accounts for fewer of District 16’s voters than before. Manatee County now dominates.
Candidate Shapiro, facing opposition in the primary, already has been beating a path up and down Interstate 75. He sought votes this summer during appearances across the Southshore region in homes and at Democratic club gatherings.
His Facebook page is dominated by snapshots of stump speeches, and his campaign says personal appearances are key to his election strategy. Hillsborough voters, he says, will see plenty of him. Buchanan, on the other hand, faced no primary opposition so there isn’t much movement to track yet on his social media accounts — mainly outrage at Red Tide and counterattacks against Shapiro.
Let’s hope neither candidate substitutes the shortcut of negative advertising for interaction with the voters as an election strategy. Unfortunately, both men have started down the low path already. And both can muster the big money such a cynical turn requires.
Buchanan is one of the richest members of Congress. Shapiro has the backing of national Democratic interests who see the incumbent as vulnerable to a national, mid-term Blue Wave in a district where Republicans’ edge is about 4 to 3.
It’s up to Hillsborough voters to reach out to the two candidates and demand better — and to demand that they show up in person to make their case for election.