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Hillsborough GOP backs pastor Rodney Howard-Browne after arrest

Charges were filed against the pastor of The River of Tampa Bay church for unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules. The Hillsborough County Republican Party has ties to the church.

At least one local organization supports The River of Tampa Bay church in its battle with local authorities to keep holding mass church services — the Hillsborough County Republican Party.

The local party has ties to the church — it holds meetings there and several precinct representatives and members of the party’s executive board attend the church, according to party members and social media postings.

In a posting on its Facebook page Monday, about the arrest of church pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, the party said, “So Hillsborough Sheriff Chronister wants to ARREST a Church Pastor but let criminals OUT of jail?”

Related: RELATED STORY: Pastor of Tampa church that held two large Sunday services arrested, jailed

Clarice Henderson, a church member and one of the party’s two delegates to the state GOP executive committee, has posted defenses of the church on social media, suggesting that preventing the church from holding services violates freedom of religion, and that the church conducted its services safely.

Meanwhile, the party continues to push social media posts saying the pandemic is overhyped, including one Sunday suggesting the coronavirus scare is a conspiracy between Democrats and the Chinese to hurt Donald Trump’s re-election chances.

Coronavirus alters campaigns

The coronavirus pandemic has virtually shut down political campaigning, along with much of the rest of daily life, at a time when campaigns for local offices — including county and legislative posts — would normally be shifting into high gear.

Which candidates will that hurt the most?

According to political experts, it will most hurt political outsiders, challengers running against incumbents, and those who don’t already have well-known names.

In Hilllsborough County, that includes several Democrats challenging incumbent Republican legislators, but also some Republicans and Democrats challenging officeholders in primaries.

Another group getting slammed are candidates hoping to qualify for office by gathering petition signatures instead of paying filing fees. State officials have so far declined to consider changing or lowering petition signature requirements — the petitions still must be signed on paper and returned to the Election Supervisor’s Office.

“This situation definitely benefits the insiders, especially corporate-funded candidates,” said local Democratic political consultant Tom Alte. “It’s not a good situation for challengers.”

While the general public is distracted by virus news from political races, and has little interest in contributing to campaigns, “The corporations and special interests are not going to stop their donations,” Alte said.

Veteran local Republican consultant April Schiff said down-ballot races that get little attention — school board and judicial races — will be hurt most.

“All the things we normally do, we can’t do — knock on doors, hold fundraisers, go to dinners and club meetings and shake hands,” she said. “With the economic forecast, it’s hard to ask people to donate. The response is not pretty.”

Schiff and Alte said they’ve advised candidates clients to shift to “public service announcement” campaign messages.

Democrat Jen McDonald is running against better-known and better-funded Harry Cohen in a Democratic county commissioner primary, but has nonetheless “transitioned to sharing facts about COVID-19 to assist the public” in her campaign, she said.

Jen McDonald says she’s ready for a primary battle against fellow Democrat Harry Cohen for the District 1 Hillsborough County commissioner’s seat. [ Courtesy of Jen McDonald/Courtesy of City of Tampa ]

For some candidates, the qualifying fee, 6 percent of the office’s salary, is a significant chunk of money — $6,041.10 for a county commissioner, for example.

In heavily-minority county commissioner District 3, none of the four candidates had raised more than $40,000 as of the end of February, and all four hoped to qualify by petition. One, Gwen Myers, who started her campaign early, already has.

But, “It’s probably impossible now,” said another District 3 candidate, former Tampa City Council member Frank Reddick.

Former Tampa City Council member Frank Reddick. [Times (2011)]

The other two, Tom Scott and Sky White, both still hope to get enough petitions by asking supporters to print them out online and mail them in.

Jessica Harrington, a Democrat on a shoestring campaign budget challenging well-funded incumbent state Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, hopes to finish getting her petitions instead of paying $1,781.82 — “There’s no way I’m going to pay that money that could be better spent to reach voters.”

But U.S. Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover, said his campaign has suspended its efforts to qualify by petition because of the epidemic.

Some states, including New Jersey, are altering petition requirements. Here, the Orange County Democratic Party is asking Gov. Ron DeSantis to waive or reduce signature requirements.

But, said Alte, current officeholders “are in a good position — they don’t want to change the rules to benefit anybody else.”

Candidates mostly agree with safer-at-home

Among the candidates for Hillsborough County sheriff and county commissioner — who could end up serving on the county Emergency Policy Group if elected — most agreed with the EPG’s decision to impose a “safer-at-home” order in the county, but several said they would have done so sooner, and a few had other differences:

  • Those who would have moved sooner: incumbent county Commissioner Pat Kemp, McDonald, Myers, White and Scott. McDonald said some EPG members failed to “put people over profits.”
  • Tighter rules: Myers would have closed access to the Bayshore and Riverwalk linear parks and boat ramps.
  • Looser rules: Reddick would have included “more flexibility” on weekends.

Jim Davison, an emergency physician and Republican challenging Kemp, said the EPG should push local governments to divert natural disaster funds to increase mental health, domestic violence and job placement services to cope with the aftermath, and set up a committee to analyze “what was done wrong and right.”

Sheriff Chad Chronister, a current EPG member, said he’s satisfied with the group’s action on the crisis. He’s one of five EPG members who initially voted March 23 against a stay-home order but reversed their votes two days later.