Here’s why Mike Pence visited this Tampa church property

Vice President Mike Pence will take the stage in New Tampa, at the Venetian Event Center at St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church, at 1:30 p.m. It wasn’t planned that way.
Vice President Mike Pence points to supporters before speaking during a campaign rally at the Huntington Center, Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020, in Toledo, Ohio. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Vice President Mike Pence points to supporters before speaking during a campaign rally at the Huntington Center, Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020, in Toledo, Ohio. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak) [ TONY DEJAK | AP ]
Published Jan. 16, 2020|Updated Jan. 17, 2020

WIMAUMA — When vice presidents come to town, they don’t travel light.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence typically comes in a parade of black SUVs with dark tinted windows, a campaign tour bus, and trucks full of red, white and blue banners and balloons. In an election year as divisive as this one, it’s a safe bet that droves of supporters, news media and campaign consultants will come to town too.

Such a massive production is a big reason why Pence’s road trip down the Interstate 4 corridor today took a last-minute detour. Pence was initially scheduled to bring his rally to a retirement community in the subdivision-spawning suburb of Wimauma, a breakthrough for an area known more for its country churches and low-cost Hispanic eateries than serving as host to world leaders and their entourages.

Pence will take the stage, instead, in a more established suburb, New Tampa, at the Venetian Event Center at St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church. The event starts at 1:30 p.m., with doors opening to the public at about 11:30 a.m. Following his Hillsborough stopover, Pence plans to take his show back on the road for a 6 p.m. appearance at a “Latinos for Trump” event at the Nación de Fe church in Kissimmee.

So why did event organizers abruptly move today’s event 36 miles north?

From a political standpoint, the Wimauma visit made sense. The venue was a property owners association clubhouse just inside the front gate of Valencia Lakes , a retirement community for those 55 or older.

It’s a southern Hillsborough community of mostly white Republican voters that’s experiencing explosive growth, and it’s positioned in the heart of the political battleground that is the I-4 corridor.

And it’s leaving its rural roots in the dust. Of the estimated 20,000 people moving to Hillsborough County each year, county officials say about 75 percent are moving to Wimauma and the surrounding Southshore community. According to data from the county supervisor of elections office, the number of registered voters in Wimauma has mushroomed from just over 26,000 in January 2016 to almost 35,000 last December — a nearly 33 percent increase.

“Wimauma is an area that we’ve recommended to a lot of politicians who want to come to here,” said Jim Waurishuk, the chairman of the Hillsborough County Republican Party. “It’s a growing area with a lot of subdivisions. It’s two of our largest Republican precincts in the county there."

Yet the same rapid growth that attracted Pence and other political hopefuls has also come with a constant headache of clogged roads and logistical failings — a frustration that may swing new residents to register as Democrats.

Like Valencia Lakes, most Wimauma developments sit behind a seemingly constant parapet of unearthed water mains and chewed up pasture land, with bulldozers and backhoes making way for something newer to come along.

There’s only one main artery transporting residents in and out, and commuters frequently share the two-lane access road with construction crews, golf carts and tractors. With most residents working in or near downtown Tampa, county officials say the daily commute takes 40 minutes or more. And residents say road congestion is so bad it’s become a danger to the community. Hillsborough County Fire Rescue paramedics have pushed for more fire stations and crews in the area due to the increasing lag in response times.

“Transportation and development unite citizens down there," said Ione Townsend, chairwoman of the Hillsborough County Democratic Party, "and those are issues that the Democratic Party cares about more than Republicans.”

Numbers from the supervisor of elections’ office prove her hunch — Wimauma voters have become slightly less Republican in recent years, and the electorate has become more diverse. Of the nearly 35,000 voters living in Wimauma, 39 percent are registered Republicans, 32.5 percent are Democrats and 26.7 percent are not affiliated with either party.

In the midst of all this growth, organizers moved the event only after the campaign learned of complaints and concerns coming from within Valencia Lakes.

Related: Mike Pence visits Florida next week, posing test for Latinos for Trump

In a letter sent out to its residents Jan. 7, the property owners association’s board of directors said it “had a cordial telephone conversation with a representative from the Pence team," prior to the campaign announcing the change of venue, and that they “thanked us for our candor.”

“Upon learning about our concerns and conflicting obligations, the Pence team decided that they would change their venue for their event,” the letter said. “They expressed their appreciation for our efforts on their behalf and complimented our beautiful community.”

That announcement came only a day after Valencia Lakes residents first learned of Pence’s plans to visit Wimauma. Even for a rural area that’s reliably Republican at the polls, the news of Pence’s visit was met with explosive reactions on both sides of the political spectrum.

Related: William March: Weekend fundraiser shows transformation of Hillsborough Democrats

“Crap why would he want to campaign in Valencia lakes our community?” resident Peri Kolakowski wrote on Facebook. “Just what we need this means we’ll have all kinds of strangers roaming around our community that’s just great.”

In another post, Valencia Lakes resident Pat Grace, wrote she was “sad” and “so disappointed in my community” after she learned that “because of verbal people in this community Pence has been uninvited.” Resident Holly Laufer Blythe commented that she too disagreed with the decision to dis-invite Pence - “so much so that i have to consider selling. Any realtors willing to meet with us???”

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As the countdown ticks ever closer to the November election, Waurishuk predicted that Wimauma’s burgeoning communities won’t keep politicos at bay for much longer.

You have a lot of people moving in there from outside the county and from out of state, you want to register new residents down there for party affiliation and that’s important," Waurishuk said. “Democrats are doing the same.”

“It would’ve been nice to get the vice president in," he said. “But we’ll have plenty of opportunities.”

Times staff writer Langston Taylor contributed to this report.