GOP congressional primary between Spano and Franklin turns nasty

In ads, each candidate is attacking the other’s credentials as a conservative and Trump supporter.
In ads, Scott Franklin (left) and Ross Spano are attacking each other’s credentials as a conservative and Trump supporter,
In ads, Scott Franklin (left) and Ross Spano are attacking each other’s credentials as a conservative and Trump supporter, [ City of Lakeland/Courtesy of Ross Spano ]
Published July 25, 2020

The Republican congressional primary with Lakeland city Commissioner Scott Franklin challenging incumbent Rep. Ross Spano is turning nasty, as each candidate attacks the other’s credentials as a conservative and Trump supporter, and Franklin highlights the apparent criminal investigation of illegal loans to Spano’s 2018 campaign.

In new digital ads, Spano attacks Franklin as a “never Trumper” and a liberal, claims Franklin supports “open borders,” and bashes him for voting to remove a Confederate memorial statue — all falsely, Franklin’s campaign says, with some evidence.

One Franklin ad, meanwhile, splashes the word “CRIMINAL” in bold type over Spano’s face; another says he “engineered an illegal contribution to his campaign to win an election.”

A Franklin ad also hits Spano on the hot-button immigration issue, noting that as a state House member he voted to allow in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, and claiming he voted against funding Trump’s border wall.

Neither candidate is anywhere close to liberal or even moderate.

Spano in Congress has closely aligned himself with Trump. Franklin in his own television ads calls himself “a Christian conservative” who will “fight radical socialists, reckless spending, and lawless liberals” and “help President Trump build the wall.”

Factchecking Franklin’s ads:

  • There are indications from congressional officials that the Department of Justice is looking into the Spano 2018 campaign, potentially a criminal investigation. Spano has acknowledged his campaign broke the law but says he didn’t know his actions were illegal.
  • Spano supports the border wall, but in December 2019 voted against the entire federal budget, citing the growing national debt. The budget included wall funding.
  • Spano’s 2014 vote for in-state tuition for illegal immigrants went along with an initiative by Republican leaders including then-state House Speaker Will Weatherford and then-Gov. Rick Scott.

Factchecking Spano’s ads:

  • The Lakeland City Commission voted in December 2017 to move a Confederate memorial statue from its prominent location in downtown Munn Park — but Franklin, elected that November 2017, didn’t take his seat until the following January. In May 2018, he was part of a unanimous commission vote to fund the removal with private money. He later opposed use of public money for the project.
  • A series of digital ads call Franklin a “never-Trumper” and “liberal,” tie him to “socialist Democrats” and Nancy Pelosi. Spano’s campaign didn’t respond to emailed questions about the basis. The Franklin campaign notes that Spano himself supported Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in the 2016 presidential primary against Trump, then declined to endorse Trump in the general election.
  • The “open borders” accusation is based on Franklin comments in favor of “comprehensive immigration reform,” a phrase the ads call “Bush era code language for open borders … reduced national sovereignty and lax security.”

Franklin’s campaign says he favors immigration reform along with secure borders.

Franklin ads also include an endorsement from one of Polk County’s most influential Republicans, Sheriff Grady Judd, previously neutral in the race, who praises Franklin on the issue of border security.

Stuart contests Beckner’s endorsement claim

On Facebook and in campaign appearances, clerk of court candidate Kevin Beckner is boasting an endorsement from the local teachers’ union, the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.

That could matter — Beckner’s opponent, Cindy Stuart, is a member of the county School Board. But she contends that Beckner didn’t really get an HCTA endorsement.

“He’s trying to make it look like my own teachers won’t endorse me,” she said. “It’s not appropriate.”

Cindy Stuart, 2020 candidate for Hillsborough County Clerk of Circuit Court
Cindy Stuart, 2020 candidate for Hillsborough County Clerk of Circuit Court [ Courtesy, Cindy Stuart campaign ]

What actually happened: The West Central Florida Labor Council, an umbrella group of AFL-CIO-affiliated local unions including the HCTA, unanimously endorsed Beckner April 8.

But Stuart hadn’t yet filed in the race — she filed April 20 — and wasn’t known to be interested.

On his Facebook page, Beckner cites endorsements from the council and the HCTA, and displays both their logos. In accompanying text, he clarifies that the council endorsement “includes the support” of the HCTA.

Kevin Beckner, 2020 candidate for Hillsborough County Clerk of Circuit Court
Kevin Beckner, 2020 candidate for Hillsborough County Clerk of Circuit Court [ Tampa Bay Times ]

The HCTA sometimes endorses candidates on its own and has endorsed Stuart in the past, but has made few independent endorsements this year.

The union itself apparently wants to stay out of the fight.

“We haven’t endorsed in the race specifically but we are part of the (council),” said HCTA executive director Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, “so it’s not technically incorrect.”

Beckner said he checked with the HCTA about the wording used in his Facebook post. Asked via text message to verify that, Baxter-Jenkins didn’t respond directly. “We have good relationships with both candidates,” she said.

Beckner and Stuart, both Democrats, face off in the Aug. 18 primary, but because no other candidate is running, all voters can vote in the race, not just Democrats.

Self-funding Owen leads D59 fundraising race

As of June, Democrat Andrew Learned was leading the race for contributions in what’s expected to be the county’s most hotly contested legislative race, state House District 59, with $122,539 — but Republican Michael Owen’s $72,400 in loans to his own campaign put him into the overall fundraising lead with $184,728.

Related: RELATED: Democrats compete in more Florida legislative races, but still face long odds

Owen’s GOP primary opponent, Danny Kushmer, had raised $67,220.

Learned’s lead may not last long after the primary Aug. 18.

Both parties are expected to target the seat, long held by Republicans until Democrat Adam Hattersley narrowly flipped it in 2018, giving Democrats their first foothold in decades in East Hillsborough.

Hattersley is now leaving the seat to run for Congress. Republicans want it back and Democrats want to hold it, so both parties are likely to spend heavily — which means the heavily funded Republican leadership PACs and corporate interests will likely boost the GOP nominee.