Former state Rep. Shawn Harrison files to challenge Tampa Sen. Janet Cruz

Harrison has the backing of state Senate Republican leadership.
Republican Shawn Harrison is a former Tampa City Council and state House member. He's announced he's running to challenge state Sen. Janet Cruz.
Republican Shawn Harrison is a former Tampa City Council and state House member. He's announced he's running to challenge state Sen. Janet Cruz. [ Times files ]
Published April 18, 2022|Updated April 18, 2022

Former Tampa City Council and state House member Shawn Harrison has announced he’ll challenge state Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, in what could become one of the state’s highest-profile 2022 legislative races.

Harrison announced his campaign Monday with the backing of Senate Republican leadership.

The race could be reminiscent of the close 2018 election in which Cruz unseated Republican Dana Young in a recount after what probably was the highest-spending legislative race in state history to that time.

Campaign finance reports and insider estimates from both parties indicated the two sides together spent $12 million or more.

But redistricting has made Cruz’s new District 14 somewhat more favorable to a Democrat.

It covers northwest Hillsborough down through South Tampa, taking in Cruz’s West Tampa stronghold but also much of Harrison’s New Tampa home turf.

The area voted for Joe Biden by 51-47 percent, and for Democrat Andrew Gillum over Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2018 by 52-47 percent, according to figures from political mapping expert Matthew Isbell.

Republicans are likely to believe they can retake the seat in what’s expected to be a tough election year for Democrats, while Democrats are likely to believe they can hold it — a recipe for both sides to spend heavily.

Harrison said 2022 will differ from 2018 because “the two years under Biden have been disappointing and the years under Gov. DeSantis have put Florida in a good position.” He predicted “an excited electorate of Republicans and independents” voting to continue DeSantis’ policies.

Harrison, 57, a commercial litigation lawyer and former Tampa Palms Community Development District chairman, served on the City Council from 1999 to 2007, then had an up-and-down electoral career.

He won his House seat in 2010, lost it in 2012 to Mark Danish, regained it in 2014 but lost it again in 2018 to state Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa.

Harrison’s candidacy was announced in a news release endorsing him by Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and the next two incoming Senate presidents, Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, and Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, a sign the party leadership is solidly behind him.

They credited Harrison with cutting taxes while on the City Council.

Cruz, 65, head of an optician business and mother of Ana Cruz, the partner of Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, served in the House from 2010 to 2018 and as minority leader, with statewide fundraising responsibilities, from 2016 to 2018.

Cruz said the district “is still purple, competitive, and (Republicans) will have some interest in taking the seat back.”

But she said she is a prolific fundraiser who has kept up her profile in the district by hosting a large annual jobs fair, free document shredding events, and by raising money to put lead filters on Hillsborough public school water fountains after the Legislature failed to pass her bill to do so statewide.

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“They’re saying it’s a bad year for Democrats, but it’s really about who knows you and what you’ve done for the community,” she said.

Related: 2019: Winning as an insider: Janet Cruz a rare success story for Florida Democrats

Cruz starts the race with about $123,397 in her campaign account and $292,650 in a separate political committee.

Harrison starts with about $94,400 in a political committee.

If early rhetoric is an indication, the race will be tough.

Erin Isaac, spokeswoman for the Florida GOP’s state Senate campaign arm, said the group is “all in” on unseating Cruz, who she said is “stomping on the American dream and pushing a radical socialist agenda that demonizes parents.”

But Ione Townsend, Hillsborough Democratic Party chairman, said Cruz has established herself in the community and is a hard campaigner and fundraiser: “Never discount Janet Cruz.”