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Fernandez entry roils Hillsborough District 3 commission race

Some East Tampans are calling for black voters to unify behind one of the four black candidates.

The entry of Rick Fernandez in the District 3 county commission race has alarmed East Tampa community and political activists who fear the result could be a board of commissioners with no black member.

Fernandez says the contest should be about the district’s needs, not about race.

Related: RELATED: District 3 could be Hillsborough’s tightest commission race in 2020

But some East Tampans are calling for black voters to unify behind one of the four black candidates — Gwen Myers, Frank Reddick, Tom Scott and Sky White — saying they could otherwise split the black vote in the Democratic primary, giving Fernandez a win. The Democratic nominee will likely win the heavily Democratic district.

Former Tampa City Council member Frank Reddick. [Times (2012)]

Prominent community activist Chloe Coney advocated that in a Facebook post last week, and got more than 200 responses within days, but no clear plan for unity. Suggestions included a candidate forum and straw vote or persuading some candidates to drop out, which seems unlikely.

Tom Scott, during his time on the Tampa City Council. [ Times (2010) ]

In response, a newly formed Facebook group plans a candidate forum Thursday 5/21 from 6-8 p.m. In-person attendance is invitation-only, but the public can submit questions and watch live on the Facebook page, named “Who Do You Want to Be County Commissioner for District 3,” and possibly on the candidates’ pages.

Related: RELATED: Rick Fernandez joins already-competitive Hillsborough commission race

Organizer Kella McCaskill said all candidates including Fernandez and Republican Maura Cruz Lanz are invited.

“We’re trying to find out what the African-American community is asking for,” she said. “We can then come together and say who do we want.”

The District 3 winner will replace Les Miller, the only black commissioner.

Besides predominantly black East Tampa, District 3, about 40 percent black, extends from the university area to Progress Village, including parts of gentrifying West Tampa, Seminole Heights and Tampa Heights, Fernandez’s home.

A neighborhood and transportation activist and lawyer, Fernandez raised $20,477 in three weeks after filing April 6, including $12,020 of his own. The fundraising leaders, Myers and Reddick, have about $41,000 each.

Fernandez said he appreciates being included in the forum.

“The focus shouldn’t be on race or skin color, it’s should be on who’s going to advocate for the community,” he said. “We’ve had African-American representation in this district since about 1985, and I’m sure you could get varying opinions on what kind of representation we’ve had,” while the community still has complaints about services, he said.

Candidates hit fundraising wall

With the pandemic shutting down politicking, fundraising by Hillsborough County local and legislative candidates hit a wall in April, as elsewhere in the state. Many reported their smallest fundraising months ever, and several registered flat zeroes.

The result is likely to be a playing field tilted more against challengers and for well-known incumbents, particularly Republicans, who will get financial support from corporations and PACs that haven’t stopped giving to the legislative majority.

Three GOP House incumbents — Mike Beltran of Lithia, Jamie Grant of Tampa and Lawrence McClure of Dover — have raised no money at all since the beginning of the legislative session in February.

But all three already had healthy balances in their campaigns, independent committees or both, and face Democratic challengers running on a shoestring. They can also expect help from the state Republican Party, which has outraised state Democrats more than 2-1 in this election cycle.

In the county tax collector race, Democratic primary opponents April Griffin and Nancy Millan both recorded their smallest monthly totals so far — $20 for Griffin and $3,100 for Millan.

In the county tax collector race, Democratic primary opponents April Griffin (left) and Nancy Millan (right) both recorded their smallest monthly totals so far. [ Left, Times; Right, courtesy of Nancy Millan ]

In the Democratic clerk of court primary, Kevin Beckner recorded his smallest month ever, $5,295, while challenger Cindy Stuart, who filed late in the month, reported $19,106 — but that included $10,000 of her own.

Some exceptions to the fundraising drought:

Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, facing Democrat Julie Jenkins, raised $18,330 in March and April — but $17,000 of that came in $1,000 maximum PAC contributions.

Democrat Jessica Harrington, challenging Grant, banked her the biggest monthly total, $8,853, after national publicity from left-leaning web sites about her challenge to Grant drew scores of small, out-of-state contributions. Grant has incurred national criticism as sponsor of the new law imposing financial restrictions on restoring former felons’ voting rights.

Holt backs Millan

Public Defender Julianne Holt is endorsing Nancy Millan in the Democratic primary for tax collector, even though Millan’s opponent, April Griffin, formerly worked as human resources director in Holt’s office for 10 months.

Public Defender Julianne Holt. SCOTT KEELER | Times (2016)

Holt denied that was because of any dissatisfaction with Griffin’s work.

She said she had backed Millan’s mentor Doug Belden for re-election before he dropped out, and Millan is part of his team; that she has a close friendship with Millan, and considers Millan “a good person and immensely qualified.”

But Griffin said she believes it’s because Holt is part of a “South Tampa political establishment.”

Holt said she considers herself “a West Tampa person,” the neighborhood where she grew up.

Contact William March at