Races for Hillsborough Commission offer choices, but few sparks

The challengers have each received modest financial support.
Democrat Harry Cohen, left, and Republican Scott Levinson are in a rematch from two years ago when Cohen narrowly won.
Democrat Harry Cohen, left, and Republican Scott Levinson are in a rematch from two years ago when Cohen narrowly won. [ Cohen campaign | Levinson campaign ]
Published Oct. 7, 2022

With six of the seven Hillsborough County commissioner seats up for election this year, political insiders expected a donnybrook over control of county government.

Instead, the races have been comparatively quiet, and it’s unclear whether any are seriously competitive.

Six seats were up because of redistricting — district representatives have to run for re-election when their districts are redrawn, even if their terms aren’t up.

Democrat Pat Kemp, in a countywide seat with two years left in her term, holds the only seat that wasn’t available this year.

But Democrat Gwen Myers in District 3 faced no opposition, and Republican Mike Owen won the District 4 seat in the primary when no Democrat qualified.

Republican Ken Hagan and Democrats Harry Cohen, Kimberly Overman and Mariella Smith still face challengers Nov. 8, but the challengers have raised comparatively little money and have lesser-known names.

Democrats have hopes for Angela Birdsong, challenging Hagan, because she lost to him by only about 5 points in 2018 while being heavily outspent. But Birdsong again has raised comparatively little -- $65,590 to Hagan’s $397,560 – while after 20 years as a commissioner, Hagan has one of the county’s best-known political names.

Republican Scott Levinson, challenging Cohen, lost to him very narrowly in 2020, but Cohen’s District 1 became more Democratic in redistricting and Levinson again is raising little money -- $21,295 to Cohen’s $188,069.

Republican Josh Wostal is campaigning actively against Overman, insiders say, but as a political newcomer being heavily outspent, he’s the dark horse.

And Smith, who comfortably beat well-known former legislator Victor Crist to win her seat in 2018, looks like a strong favorite against her newcomer challenger, Donna Cameron Cepeda.

Kemp said challengers against incumbent commissioners face “a daunting fundraising task” because political and business interests are reluctant to side publicly against incumbents.

Cohen said the quiet races are because the board “is doing its job well without a lot of drama,” and that other races, including school boards, are drawing unusually large shares of voter attention this year.

But Republicans say a possible red voting wave could improve prospects for Cepeda, Levinson and Wostal.