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Rick Fernandez joins already-competitive Hillsborough commission race

A lawyer and former Tampa Heights Civic Association president, Fernandez has filed to run for the District 3 seat now held by term-limited Les Miller.

The already-competitive Hillsborough County Commission District 3 race just got more competitive with the filing of civic and transportation activist Rick Fernandez.

Fernandez, a lawyer and former Tampa Heights Civic Association president, said he was motivated by the controversial Tampa Bay Next program, including expansion of Interstate 275. Many in Tampa Heights and Seminole Heights fear the project will harm their neighborhoods.

But for some, Fernandez’s candidacy raises a concern.

The race will replace the only black commissioner, term-limited Les Miller, and Fernandez will be the only non-black candidate in a field currently of five. Some, including Miller, fear a non-black candidate could consolidate non-black votes in the 40-percent black district, resulting in a board with no black commissioner.

A non-black candidate “has been a concern of mine and now it has come to pass,” Miller said.

The other candidates are Gwen Myers, former City Council member Frank Reddick, former Commissioner and council member Tom Scott and Sky White. The Aug. 18 Democratic primary is expected to decide the race in the heavily Democratic district.

Fernandez, 65, a first-time candidate, is a Navy veteran of the judge advocate general corps, former county Bar Association president and member of the Florida Bar board of governors. He does career coaching and recruitment for lawyers and law firms.

He acknowledged the racial concern.

“I’m sensitive to the issue, but I totally reject the idea that because of my skin color I can’t or shouldn’t run to represent my home district, in which I was born, or that I’m incapable of representing everyone in this very diverse county,” he said.

Fernandez said he has no criticism of the other candidates, but, “There isn’t anyone currently running that I feel will put as much energy into the issues I’m advocating as I would,” including transportation, transit, clean air and water and “protecting the urban core of Tampa.”

He faces another handicap — starting a campaign against a field including better-known candidates when the pandemic has shut down traditional political activity and fundraising. Fernandez said he hopes to raise about $20,000 and will match that amount with his own money.

Miller has been neutral in the race but said his concern about a board with no black member could cause him to pick a side.

Franklin boosts campaign cash

Lakeland City Commissioner Scott Franklin is starting his Republican primary challenge to U.S. Rep. Ross Spano of Dover with a bang — $266,786 raised in his first two weeks as a candidate, including $160,000 of his own money.

Franklin’s first campaign finance report shows fundraising from his March 16 filing until March 31, the end of the first quarter of 2020. None of the other candidates in the race — Spano and Democrats Adam Hattersley or Alan Cohn — has yet filed for the quarter. Reports are due next week.

Lakeland City Commissioner Scott Franklin (left) has filed to challenge U.S. Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover, in a Republican primary. [ City of Lakeland/Courtesy of Ross Spano ]

Franklin reported contributions from three members of the Barnett family, politically influential founders of Publix supermarkets, and three Lakeland-based members of The Southern Group, a high-powered Tallahassee lobbying firm.

Spano, meanwhile, announced the day Franklin filed that he was suspending campaign activity, while criticizing Franklin for filing during the pandemic, and announced last week he’s continuing the suspension.

However, Spano is continuing to fundraise and hold telephone townhall meetings with constituents through his congressional office. The other campaigns haven’t announced suspensions but are doing much the same — fundraising and electronic outreach.

Political insiders say lack of attention to politics during the pandemic is likely to help incumbents running for re-election.

Rouson seeks race data on virus

Citing a “disproportionate effect” of the coronavirus on minorities, State Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, has asked state Surgeon General Scott Rivkees for coronavirus data including race and ethnicity.

State Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees, right, speaks about the confirmed coronavirus cases in Hillsborough and Manatee Counties while other local and state officials are in attendance during a press conference at the Florida Department of Health Laboratory in Tampa, Florida on March 2, 2020. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

Rouson said Rivkees responded quickly, noting the state’s coronavirus death data include racial breakouts, but leave race unknown in half or more of the cases for various reasons. He said Rivkees promised more complete data within two weeks.