TAMPA — Harry Cohen thought he’d been talking about transportation, affordable housing and workforce development. Instead, the Democratic candidate for Hillsborough County Commission District 1 says the top issues are the public health demands of the coronavirus pandemic and preparing to deal with its economic outfall.
Welcome to the campaign of 2020 where things aren’t going as originally planned. The typical meet-and-greets, coffee klatches, hand shakes and door knocks of retail politics have given way to virtual forums, lots of phone conversations and a greater reliance on social media, amid the social distancing and facial coverings of COVID-19.
“This my fourth campaign in 10 years,” said Cohen. “It is so different. It hardly feels like it’s the same endeavor.”
“The way politics has gone, from now on, has changed,” agreed said Tony Morejon, a Republican candidate for the same commission seat.
When the pandemic hit, Democrat Jen McDonald said she set aside gathering petition signatures and planned fund-raisers and turned to researching the coronavirus and disseminating information to the public through social media. Instead of knocking on doors, she and her campaign volunteers started telephoning voters to do wellness checks and point them to available resources..
“Leadership is showing up when people need you,” she said.
Cohen, McDonald, Morejon and Republican Scott Levinson are the four candidates running for the District 1 county commission seat now held by Commissioner Sandy Murman. She is leaving the post due to term limits and is running instead for a countywide commission seat against incumbent Commissioner Pat Kemp in November.
The district’s sprawling geography includes the county’s coastal areas and stretches from Keystone to Apollo Beach. Its voter enrollment shows about 78,000 Democrats and 76,000 Republicans, according to end-of-the-year data on the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections web site. The district’s voters registered as non-party or with a minor-party total more than 67,000, but they won’t have a say in selecting their commissioner until the November general election.
Cohen, 50, who served two terms on Tampa City Council and ran unsuccessfully for Tampa mayor, is the only one of the four candidates who has held public office or run a campaign previously. Currently the legal counsel for the office of Clerk of the Circuit Court Pat Frank, Cohen was considered his party’s front-runner as soon as he announced his candidacy in 2019. His $131,000 in contributions through July 10 was more than the other three candidates combined.
His opponent in the Democratic primary is McDonald, 40, a member of the county’s citizens advisory committee who has been active in community, education and business groups while owning her own insurance agency.
And because of the pandemic, “I am most uniquely qualified for the job as it sits today,” she said, pointing to her background in risk management and in building a small business.
Their concerns — improving transportation, expanding affordable housing, supporting the business community and providing access to high-quality jobs — are similar.
Both are leery of the state’s plan to widen Interstate 275. Cohen did not offer a specific alternative but stated “We must reduce congestion by getting single occupancy vehicles off the road.”
McDonald offered definitive suggestions to take the planned expenditures of adding highway lanes and instead invest in everything from mass transit to building tree-line neighborhood sidewalks so people can walk safely to schools, retail services and jobs.
“We haven’t yet provided adequate transportation options to people who can’t afford to operate a car,” she said..
She also cited transportation as a portion of the county budget that cannot be reduced amid the expected spending constraints from reduced gasoline, sales and other tax revenues. Cohen said he would try to protect public safety spending, but admitted, “everybody’s definition of what’s essential and what’s non-essential is different and that’s going to be where the rubber meets the road.‘'
The open seat also has drawn two Republican candidates: Morejon, a retired civil servant, and Levinson who formerly owned his own wholesale meat business and now is executive director of a 4,000-member youth football league.
Morejon, 62, said his more than three decades as a community liaison for Hillsborough County government has given him the experience to better serve the public. His role, he said, was to be a facilitator to help solve problems the public brought to the county’s attention.
“You know, the guy that knows a guy that knows a guy? I was that guy,” he said.
And he’s not shy about dropping names of former county government stalwarts. During a candidate interview for the Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce he referenced working with Commissioner Phyllis Basansky, former Head Start director Ann Porter, former Assistant County Administrator Jimmie B. Keel, and former county administrators Larry Brown and Frederick B. Karl, who Morejon called “my mentor.‘'
Among the myriad issues facing the county, Morejon told the Tampa Bay Chamber his campaign priority was public safety.
“None of that matters if you don’t feel safe,” he said.
Levinson’s background is just the opposite of Morejon’s. Levinson, 55, spent his career in the private sector and is running as an outsider who got involved because he experienced the slow pace of government, particularly when he sought field and playground repairs at county parks.
He called the county government dysfunctional and said fixing it to increase accountability is the top issue.
“I believe there has to be a better approach, a business-minded approach,” he said.
Levinson is executive director of the Tampa Bay Youth Football League and estimated three-quarters of the children and families in the league are from a lower socioeconomic tier who have little voice in government.
“You start to realize the access of the general public and the people really listening to the needs of the public really isn’t there.”
“Government is difficult,” he said. “Especially in Hillsborough County, it’s been just the same people. Shuffle the deck, but the people never change."
His goal to to make that change happen.
Early voting begins Aug. 3. The winners of the Aug. 18 primary will face off in the Nov. 3 general election.