National political parties are piling into local Congressional District 15 race

The race between Alan Cohn and Scott Franklin is viewed as the Democrats' best chance in Florida to flip a GOP-held U.S. House seat.
November's race for the 15th Congressional District seat pits Democrat Alan Cohn (left) against Republican Scott Franklin (right).
November's race for the 15th Congressional District seat pits Democrat Alan Cohn (left) against Republican Scott Franklin (right). [ Alan Cohn/City of Lakeland ]
Published Sept. 26, 2020

As expected, both national political parties are piling into the Congressional District 15 race, viewed as the Democrats' best chance in Florida to flip a GOP-held U.S. House seat.

This week, the Democratic Party’s House campaign arm put their candidate, Alan Cohn, on its exclusive Red to Blue program, which can provide a candidate substantial financial and other help.

Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy showed up for a fundraiser backing GOP candidate Scott Franklin and suggested he’ll provide fundraising help so Franklin will no longer have to self-fund his campaign.

While McCarthy was at the fundraiser Sunday at Tampa’s Palma Ceia Country Club, a crowd of about 75 Democrats showed up to protest outside, after rumors incorrectly said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell was attending.

They stayed for about an hour carrying signs saying “Ditch Mitch” and “No SCOTUS Before POTUS,” a reference to McConnell’s announced plans to quickly replace the late Chief Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

A wealthy insurance executive and Lakeland city commissioner, Franklin has spent $400,000 of his own money on the race, mainly in the primary in which he unseated incumbent Republican Ross Spano.

“We’re going to make sure Scott has all the money he needs to get his message out,” McCarthy said in an interview. “I think you’ll see that everybody is on board to support him.”

The event drew “several dozen” attendees, each contributing the maximum $2,800, said a Franklin campaign spokeswoman.

McCarthy and Franklin both said they approve of GOP plans to nominate and confirm a replacement for Ginsburg before the presidential election.

Cohn, former broadcast investigative reporter and anchor, said the Red to Blue designation means the party “recognizes the movement we’ve built in this highly vulnerable open seat.”

Party insiders say it signals to national PACs and advocacy groups the candidate is a top priority, driving contributions and independent expenditures. It also brings direct help from the party, which is out-fundraising Republicans so far in this election cycle.

As of the end of August, the party’s House campaign arm showed $104.7 million cash on hand compared to $68.9 million for the GOP’s House campaign committee.

Nationally, 35 Democratic candidates are in the Red to Blue program, including one other in Florida, Margaret Good, who’s challenging U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan of Longboat Key.

Two Red to Blue candidates, Debbie Mucarsel Powell and Donna Shalala, both of Miami, won GOP-held seats in 2018, but in Democrat-friendly districts, unlike the red-leaning District 15 in east Hillsborough, Lakeland and Clermont.

Democrats say District 15 has been trending more Democratic in recent elections.

Murman ads hit at Kemp

In a mailer and broadcast ad, Republican County Commissioner Sandy Murman labels her Democratic opponent, Commissioner Pat Kemp, as “deceitful,” “extreme” and unethical — but some of her charges appear to have little or no factual basis.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | TIMES | JOHN PENDYGRAFT ]

That inspired a third commissioner, Mariella Smith, a fellow Democrat and ally of Kemp on the issue of growth regulations and impact fees, to jump into the argument, condemning “Sandy’s lies” in an email to reporters.

Murman responded to repeated phone and text requests this week for documentation of her charges only with a text message saying, “Everything is accurate and can be validated with articles written in the Times as well as transcripts and video of (commissioners') meetings.”

She didn’t elaborate. Her political consultant, Anthony Pedicini, didn’t respond to a query.

Meanwhile, Murman has built a big fundraising lead in the race and is expected to increase it further.

As of Sept. 4, she had about $330,000 in her campaign account and political committee, compared to about $111,000 for Kemp.

Commissioner Pat Kemp
Commissioner Pat Kemp [ Courtesy of Pat Kemp ]

In the mailer and video ad, Murman said Kemp “violates ethics rules, texting lobbyists during official meetings,” and favors “an extreme, job-killing agenda.”

The texting charge appears to refer to 2019 commission meetings in which Ed Turanchik, whose status as a lobbyist was in dispute, sent Kemp text messages during meetings, in one case answering a question the commissioners were discussing. Kemp says she announced from the dais that she had received an answer from Turanchik.

There was no indication Kemp responded to the texts. She denies that she has ever texted a lobbyist during a meeting and said she almost never texts from the dais.

But if she did, it wouldn’t violate county ethics rules, Kemp said, citing county ordinances that prohibit lobbyists from texting commissioners but don’t prohibit commissioners from texting.

The “job-killing” charge apparently refers to Kemp’s crusade for increasing county impact fees on development and possibly to Kemp’s recent opposition to a $438,000 county financial incentive for Home Depot to build a warehouse in Gibsonton. The board decided against the incentive with Kemp opposed and Murman in favor, but the warehouse is being built anyway.

Related: RELATED: Hillsborough commissioners clash over economic incentives

Kemp has long said the county’s impact fees for schools, roads and other infrastructure are too low and pushed to increase them. She says that will help create jobs in building needed infrastructure, and that failure to charge adequate fees leaves taxpayers on the hook for needed improvements.

Murman says in her ad that she “led the passage of the toughest local ethics law” in county history, and “made developers pay their fair share in taxes and fees to build schools and road improvements.”

Murman sponsored a 2016 ordinance that significantly tightened county lobbying regulations and a previous update, but has frequently resisted increases in impact fees. Her campaign is heavily backed financially by the real estate development industry.

Learned misfires on Owen’s taxes

In a Tampa Tiger Bay Club virtual forum for local state House candidates, Democrat Andrew Learned blasted his GOP opponent, Mike Owen, for not showing up to answer questions — but one shot he took misfired.

“My opponent in this race took a tax loophole designed for disabled veterans to avoid paying property taxes on his house in South Tampa,” Learned said. “He’s not disabled and he’s not a veteran.”

Later in the forum, he brought it up again, saying, “These are the things that just make people sick.”

Owen did get a big property tax break on his South Tampa townhouse in 2018, but it was a result of the timing of tax appraisals, not because he wrongly claimed an exemption.

Owen bought the townhouse in April, 2018. But property taxes are based on assessments and exemptions in place as of Jan. 1 each year, so that year’s tax bill was based on the previous owner, who qualified for a 100-percent disabled vet exemption.

Owen paid $137.30 in taxes on a home valued at $319,582.

In an interview, Learned said he still thought the situation was “not on the upright,” but Owen said even if he had tried to pay taxes on the full value, the money wouldn’t have been accepted.

Learned also noted that the house is not in Brandon-based House District 59, where the two are running. Owen sold the home in August 2019, three months after filing for the seat, and moved to a house in the Brandon area.