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Hillsborough Commission candidates sparked by different timelines

In District 3, Democrat Gwen Myers planned her candidacy in 2013; Republican Maria Cruz Lanz started less than seven months ago.

TAMPA — Republican Maura Cruz Lanz said she made up her mind to run for the Hillsborough County Commission in the spring following the March 30 arrest of Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, accused of violating the pandemic-induced, stay-at-home order by allowing large crowds at church services.

"That was like ‘Oh my goodness, that is so unconstitutional.’ It goes against everything I believe in,'' said Lanz, adding that the coronavirus-related rules showed "our civil liberties are being trampled on.''

Democrat Gwen Myers' political ambition got an earlier start — by seven years. She filed her candidacy papers on Jan. 2, 2019, but had forecast her intentions in 2013 on the day she retired as a civil servant from Hillsborough County government.

"I told County Administrator Mike Merrill, ‘Mike, I’m going to run for the District 3 seat in 2020 and I’m going to come back and be your boss.’ That’s how long I’ve been talking about running for this seat,” Myers said.

She won’t get the chance to supervise Merrill. He retired earlier this year. Meanwhile, authorities dropped the charge against Pastor Howard-Browne.

Neither candidate, however, has veered from their goal of being the next District 3 Hillsborough County commissioner. The seat is now held by Commission Chairman Les Miller Jr. who is leaving office after 10 years because of term limits.

Political timing isn’t the only thing differentiating the candidates. Among other things, they differ on paying for improved transportation, impact fees on new construction, and the future widening of Interstate 275 known as Tampa Bay Next.

Myers said she wants to be a leader to bring the transportation sales tax referendum back to the electorate in 2022 if the Florida Supreme Court invalidates the balloting from 2018. Two years ago, more than 56 percent of the voters approved increasing the county’s sales tax to pay for improved transportation.

Lanz said she voted against the tax referendum in 2018 and would not support putting it back on the ballot.

Lanz speaks often of too much government regulation and, in particular, cites the impact fees Hillsborough County charges on new construction. Rolling them back would aid builders who want to construct more affordable housing, she said.

Myers said she won’t undo what the current commission already has approved. In a series of votes earlier this year the commission increased impact fees — one-time charges on new construction to help cover infrastructure costs tied to growth — for schools, utilities, transportation and parks.

Myers, meanwhile, opposes the Tampa Bay Next project. The state Department of Transportation and the county’s long-range transportation plan includes adding lanes to I-275 and to the I-4 interchange, a plan opposed by neighborhood residents in Tampa Heights, Seminole Heights and elsewhere. One of the alternatives pitched by opponents is to reconfigure a street grid system in which the I-275 corridor becomes Boulevard Tampa between the I-4 interchange and Sligh Avenue.

Related: Widening I-275 still part of Hillsborough transportation plan

In a recent interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Lanz acknowledged she had just learned of the years-long dispute.

"I just found out they want to tear down 10 miles of I-275. I know Commissioner Pat Kemp and some of the others are proposing that. I think that’s crazy,'' said Lanz.

There is some common ground. Both candidates said they support using CSX freight rail lines for mass transit to move commuters from the University of South Florida area to downtown and both said the Hillsborough Area Regional Transportation Authority should expand bus service. Lanz, however, does not offer a plan on how to pay for that.

Lanz, 65, a hair stylist and barber in her early career, retired five years ago after serving as vice president and doing business operations for her family’s Manuel Lanz Construction Corp.

Myers, 66, retired in 2013 after 25 years as contracts manager and healthcare supervisor for Hillsborough County. During her career, she worked for community revitalization in the University of South Florida area including the Community Development Center, worked on flood drainage and housing renovation in Progress Village, and designed and managed a program for first-time home buyers.

Related: Gwen Myers gain victory in primary

District 3 stretches from Bearss Avenue south to Riverview and includes much of the city of Tampa. The district is 40 percent Black; every resident commissioner has been Black since voters approved the county charter in 1982. And, nearly 56 percent of the district’s 171,000 voters are registered as Democrats compared to less than 16 percent who are Republicans. The remainder, less than 30 percent, are not affiliated with either major party.

Lanz said voters should choose her because she is a Republican and the seat has been in Democratic control for too long.

"If people are happy with the status quo…. Then have at it. If not, I’m the change, " she said.

"We had five Democrats in the primary running on how to serve the people, how to better people’s lives,'' countered Myers. “On the flip side, we have one Republican who has not said anything on how she will serve the people of District 3. And that’s the most important how are you going to make sure you have transportation, affordable housing and health care.”

Myers emerged as the winner of that five-person Democratic primary on Aug. 18 and now is considered the prohibitive favorite in the general election because of the overwhelming advantage in party enrollment. Myers, though, said she takes nothing for granted and plans to keep campaigning until 7 p.m. Nov. 3 when the polls close.

Early voting begins Monday.