TAMPA — Hillsborough voters reshaped their County Commission Tuesday, with two Democratic incumbents falling to Republican challengers, giving the GOP a 4-3 majority on the board.
In another commission race, incumbent Democrat Harry Cohen defeated Republican Scott Levinson by 803 votes out of more than 116,000 ballots cast. The margin of victory, 50.34% to 49.66%, was not within the 0.5% margin that triggers an automatic recount.
Republicans were buoyed by their strong Election Day turnout that negated Democrats’ 22,000-vote advantage among mail ballots.
A transportation sales tax question on the ballot also was defeated. With all 448 precincts reporting, voters rejected the referendum by 51.4% to 48.6% according to unofficial and incomplete returns.
Two races for non-countywide districts featured rematches from prior years, but no change in results as incumbents defeated their underfunded counterparts in both races.
Cohen was defending the Tampa-centric District 1 seat he won two years ago over Levinson. Redistricting, however, changed the makeup of the district to make it more Democratic-leaning by including Seminole Heights in Tampa, but excluding Republican stronghold Apollo Beach in the southern part of the county.
Republican Ken Hagan held on to his seat concentrated in northern Hillsborough even though redistricting added all of the Democratic-leaning city of Temple Terrace to District 2. Hagan easily defeated Democrat Angela Birdsong 57% to 43%.
The outcome means Hagan, 55, will be starting his seventh term as commissioner, having first been elected in 2002.
In his current term, his politically popular constituent service work included opposing a brownfield designation for the former Pebble Creek Country Club, objecting to a zoning change to allow a permanent yard waste incinerator in Lutz, advocating for construction of the New Tampa Performing Arts Center and pushing for additional dollars for residential road paving.
Hagan will be dean of a Republican-controlled board, as Joshua Wostal and Donna Cameron Cepeda defeated incumbent Democratic commissioners Kimberly Overman and Mariella Smith in countywide races.
Get insights into Florida politics
Subscribe to our free Buzz newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Cepeda defeated Smith by 53% to 47%.
At midday Tuesday, Smith said she was optimistic about the outcome even with a strong Republican turnout.
”That’s why I ran as hard as I did starting in March 2021, so by today I feel like whatever happens, I’ll have no regrets. I fought a hard fight. I worked hard at fundraising and messaging, and I went to every single forum and event that I could and talked to voters all across the county,” Smith said.
Smith, an environmental and civic activist before her election in 2018, repeated that sentiment after the results were posted, noting, “I’ve been promoted to activist.”
Cepeda, an ordained minister and counselor, ran a low-key campaign as a self-described pro-life candidate who wanted to protect U.S. borders from illegal immigration and stop the “transgenderism agenda” in public schools, according to her campaign website. Her campaign treasury totaled $20,000, one-tenth of the amount raised by Smith.
Overman, the current commission chairperson, lost to Wostal by 52.6% to 47.4%.
Overman has been a strong advocate for more affordable housing and mass transit options in the county. Wostal said her push for facial covering rules during the COVID-19 pandemic sparked his candidacy.
“Hugely disappointed is an understatement,” Overman said about the Democratic turnout. “It’s literally not about the job that needs to be done. It’s about R’s and D’s. That’s what it boiled down to.”
Wostal aggressively criticized Overman’s support for the transportation sales tax referendum and at one point called for her to resign her office after a circuit court judge said the ballot language was “misleading.”
“I’ve said from the beginning I don’t like partisan politics,” Wostal said Tuesday. “So even at the end of the day once I win I’m still going to give (Ella Coffee, vice chair of the Hillsborough Democratic Executive Committee) a call and make sure I offer a way to represent everyone, not just one party.”
Times staff writer Charlie Frago contributed to this report.
• • •
We’re working hard to bring you the latest news on the elections in Florida. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription. Or click here to make a donation to the Tampa Bay Times Journalism Fund.