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Race for U.S. House seat shaping up as Hillsborough vs. Polk

Since redistricting in 2016, Hillsborough accounts for just over half the voters in the traditionally Lakeland-based 15th Congressional District.
Some Polk residents are worried their county won't have anyone to represent their interests in the U.S. House of Representatives. [Andrew Harrer, Bloomberg]
Some Polk residents are worried their county won't have anyone to represent their interests in the U.S. House of Representatives. [Andrew Harrer, Bloomberg]
Published Apr. 20, 2018

The race for the District 15 U.S. House seat is shaping up as a battle between the two counties that make up the bulk of the district, Hillsborough and Polk, and Hillsborough may have the advantage.

Polk residents worry that if a Hillsborough candidate wins the seat, held by a Polk resident at least since Andy Ireland served from 1983-1993, they will lose their only resident Congress member.

But since the redistricting that went into effect in 2016, Hillsborough accounts for just over half the voters in the traditionally Lakeland-based district. Several prominent Polk Republicans have filed or announced in the Republican primary, which could split that county's vote.

Friction among Polk Republicans also could cut their chances.

"There's some concern that in a county soon to have 700,000 people, we might not have a resident Congress member," said Lakeland City Commissioner Scott Franklin, who said he won't run for the seat.

Prominent homebuilder Sean Harper plans to announce a campaign this week, joining former state Rep. Neil Combee and adoption counselor Ed Shoemaker in the primary.

On the Hillsborough side, Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover, has announced, along with Danny Kushmer of Brandon. The big question mark is state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, who's been considering the race.

The district leans Republican, but Democrat Andrew Learned of Valrico is mounting a spirited campaign. There are no signs of new Democrats joining the race since Lakeland Republican Dennis Ross's surprise announcement last week that he won't run for re-election.

That announcement left Republicans scrambling to line up by the April 30 qualifying date. Among those who considered running but won't are Sen. Kelli Stargel and Rep. Colleen Burton, both of Lakeland.

Tension has flared between Combee and the Polk County Board of Commissioners, all Republicans, over his support for a 2018 ballot referendum to increase the homestead exemption for property taxes. Local governments fear the measure will starve them of revenue.

Combee left his state House last year for a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and now backs Josie Tomkow, also a supporter of the homestead exemption measure, in a Republican primary to replace him.

In a recent Facebook post, he blasted the county commissioners for opposing the measure and said they're lining up behind Tomkow's opponent, Jennifer Spath.

Alicia Campos files in House District 62

Alicia Campos, a West Tampa art teacher, has filed in the Democratic primary for state House District 62, a seat being left open as Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, runs for the state Senate.

The traditionally Democratic seat had seemed to be suffering from a surprising lack of candidates, for an open legislative seat where the winner of the Democratic primary is virtually assured of election.

The presumed favorite, John Rodriguez, 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.

Local Democratic Party executive director Mark Hanissee said he's not aware of any others: "It looks like a two-person primary."

Campos, 47, runs Happy Industries, which offers painting classes and painting parties for children.

A native of Spain, she came to the U.S. at 24 and lived in Philadelphia, Boston and Mexico before coming to Tampa seven years ago, for the weather and because her romantic partner lives here.

Part of her motivation for running: She finally got her citizenship in January.

She said the Latin community needs better representation, and that the mothers she deals with lament the state of public education.

Jennifer McDonald challenging man she supported

Democrat Jennifer McDonald, a Democrat, just filed to run for the District 1 county commission seat.

But last September, she wasn't planning on running.

That's when she donated $150 and agreed to be on a fundraiser host committee for Aakash Patel, now one of her Republican opponents for the D1 seat.

Both are among Tampa's growing crowd of networking young professionals.

"I supported Aakash months ago, early in his campaign because we were friends," she said. "But it became clear over the last couple of months that his politics don't represent this community and he is not the change that we need."

She said she's donated and served on host committees for local political figures 15 times or more.