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Sprawl a major issue in upcoming Hillsborough Commission race

Republican candidate Noelle Licor might side with Democrats in the long-running battle over land use.
Land use, particularly in rapidly growing south Hillsborough, was a major issue in the 2018 and 2020 county commissioner elections, which led to the first Democratic majority on the board in decades.
Land use, particularly in rapidly growing south Hillsborough, was a major issue in the 2018 and 2020 county commissioner elections, which led to the first Democratic majority on the board in decades. [ Times (2003) ]
Published Sep. 4, 2021

A second Republican — but one who might side with Democrats in the long-running battle over land use in Hillsborough County — has filed in the race to replace County Commissioner Stacy White.

Noelle Licor, organizer of the Citizens of South Hillsborough County advocacy group, said the trigger that propelled her into the race was $20,000 in contributions to Republican candidate Mike Owen from a single developer, Jeffery Hills of Eisenhower Property Group.

Licor acknowledges she’s a long shot against the well-funded Owen, who has raised $162,065 since filing in March and is backed by prominent local Republicans.

Republican Noelle Licor, organizer of the Citizens of South Hillsborough County advocacy group, has filed in the race to replace county Commissioner Stacy White.
Republican Noelle Licor, organizer of the Citizens of South Hillsborough County advocacy group, has filed in the race to replace county Commissioner Stacy White. [ Courtesy of Noelle Licor ]

“I know it’s a David and Goliath battle,” Licor said. But she believes she has a chance, because some Republicans, angry about over-development and inadequate infrastructure, have been deciding their votes — even voting for Democrats — over that issue.

Land use, particularly in rapidly growing south Hillsborough, was a major issue in the 2018 and 2020 county commission elections, which led to the first Democratic majority on the board in decades. Democrats, including commissioners Pat Kemp, Kimberly Overman and Mariella Smith advocated increased impact fees and limits on sprawl in their campaigns.

The local development industry has put up a ferocious battle against the trend, contributing heavily to Republican candidates. Kemp defeated Republican Sandy Murman last year, after a race with unprecedented spending of more than $1 million by Murman, much of it from homebuilders and developers including Hills.

Licor, 38, was appointed by Smith to the county Citizens Advisory Committee.

The contributions to Owen came in separate $1,000 chunks from each of 20 companies controlled by Hills, thus avoiding the $1,000 limit on contributions from any one individual or company.

Hills developments have been at the center of controversies on the board of commissioners over development limits, and he has sued the county over restrictions, which the commissioners are now moving to repeal, that would limit the number of homes in two planned Wimauma developments.

“I’m tired of our commissioners taking money from developers and approving rezoning requests, cutting impact fees. I think (Owen’s) votes will lean toward the people giving him money,” said Licor, a first-time candidate who hasn’t previously been significantly involved in politics.

White, a Republican, is term-limited. One Democrat, Sheri Lynn Canley, is filed in the heavily GOP-leaning district.

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Owen is endorsed by White, Hillsborough congressional Reps. Vern Buchanan and Scott Franklin, and half a dozen Hillsborough County GOP legislators.

Owen said he has “broad support from individuals, agriculture and small businesses in the district,” adding, “It takes money to communicate a message. … It is my hope that my opponent joins me in promising the voters of District 4 that a contribution is just that and nothing more.”

Crist’s district likely to change

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist’s 13th Congressional District is too small, which could provide an easy way for Republican legislators to make the district more Republican in the reapportionment to follow the 2020 Census.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist speaks during a Get Out the Vaccine roundtable at the Word and Praise Family Church in Daytona Beach, Thursday, August 26, 2021.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist speaks during a Get Out the Vaccine roundtable at the Word and Praise Family Church in Daytona Beach, Thursday, August 26, 2021.

In the reapportionment now starting, political insiders are sure the Republican majority in the Legislature, which sets district boundaries for itself and Congress, will seek to convert Crist’s Democratic-leaning swing district into an easier win for a Republican.

The district currently covers southern Pinellas County to just north of Clearwater. Heavily Democratic-voting areas in St. Petersburg helped Crist win the district, long held by Republicans, in 2016.

If the district is too small, that would provide a reason to add more territory in the northern, more Republican-voting part of the county.

But the number of Republicans who could be added may not be large.

The Census Bureau says the state’s 28 newly-drawn congressional districts should each have about 770,376 residents – by law, they must all be as close as possible to the same size.

According to analyses of just-released Census data by a couple of news organizations, Crist’s district currently is too small — 727,465 according to Daily Kos, or about 43,000 too few.

Adding that many residents would add no more than about 15,000-20,000 voters, said Matt Isbell, a Democratic political mapping expert, so District 13 could remain a swing district. In 2020, Crist won re-election by about 25,000 votes, or 6 percent.

But Crist is leaving the seat open to run for governor. Four Democrats, none as prominent as Crist, are running to replace him, along with several Republicans, including Anna Paulina Luna, who lost to Crist in 2020.

Insiders have previously speculated the Legislature would Republicanize Crist’s district, by shifting heavily Democratic Black neighborhoods in south St. Petersburg into Rep. Kathy Castor’s Tampa-based District 14. That wouldn’t change Castor’s district, which is already deep blue, but would allow adding more Republicans to Crist’s district.

That, Isbell said, could anger Pinellas residents who find themselves with a Tampa congressional representative, and rouse accusations of “racial packing.”

Jennifer Wilson files in state House District 66

Jennifer Wilson, a Belleair lawyer and former legislative aide for three prominent Tampa Bay area legislators, has filed to run in the Republican primary in state House District 66, the seat being left open by Rep. Nick DiCeglie.

Jennifer Wilson, a Belleair lawyer and former legislative aide for three Tampa Bay area legislators, has filed to run in the Republican primary in state House District 66, the seat being left open by Rep. Nick DiCeglie.
Jennifer Wilson, a Belleair lawyer and former legislative aide for three Tampa Bay area legislators, has filed to run in the Republican primary in state House District 66, the seat being left open by Rep. Nick DiCeglie. [ Courtesy of Jennifer Wilson ]

Wilson joins two other Republicans, Berny Jacques, a former prosecutor and conservative TV pundit, and Alen Tomczak, an Army veteran and defense contractor, in the race. With a substantial headstart in fundraising, both have raised about $70,000 so far.

Wilson, 35, a first-time candidate for office, has JD and master of law degrees from Stetson University, with much of the academic work done while she was working for former state Sens. Victor Crist of Tampa, Tom Lee of Thonotosassa and Jack Latvala of Clearwater. She is married to Belleair Town Manager JP Murphy.

She said she’s running because of “one tragedy after another that I see on the news” including unemployment, the Covid pandemic and Red Tide.

“My background gives me the unique ability to navigate the channels of government and provide help where it’s needed,” she said.

She said water quality and veterans’ mental health services are areas she’s particularly concerned with.

DiCeglie is leaving the seat open to run for the Senate. The Republican-leaning House district covers parts of Clearwater and nearby beach communities. No Democrat has filed in the race.

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