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Candidates lining up for open Hillsborough County Commission seat

Many of the candidates have run for or served in office before.
 
The Frederick B. Karl County Center, where commission offices are located in downtown Tampa. [Times (2005)]
The Frederick B. Karl County Center, where commission offices are located in downtown Tampa. [Times (2005)] [ JAY CONNER | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published June 16, 2023|Updated June 16, 2023

The field of candidates is starting to form in what’s likely to be a hard-fought race for an open, countywide Hillsborough County Commission seat in 2024, with at least two big local names potentially involved on the Democratic side, former Commissioner Mariella Smith and former state representative and attorney general candidate Sean Shaw.

“I’m definitely running,” Smith said last week. “My plan is to file in the fall.”

Insiders say Shaw has told them he will run, but he wouldn’t go that far in an interview last week -- “I’m seriously considering it and making all the preparations,” he said. “I’m far down the line but haven’t made the final decision.”

Democrat Mark Nash of Lithia, who lost in County Commission primaries in 2018 and 2014, has already filed.

New Tampa civic activist and physician Jim Davison became the first to file on the Republican side last week.

County Republican Party chairperson Dana Galen said she wasn’t aware yet of other viable GOP candidates, but Davison said he expects there will be several candidates from both parties.

Former Commissioner Kimberly Overman, considered a possible Democratic candidate, says she won’t run and will back Smith, citing the need for experience and knowledge of local governance on the board.

Anger among local Democrats and newfound confidence among Republicans will figure in the race.

Smith and Overman, both expected to win re-election to their countywide seats easily in 2022, instead were swept out by comparatively unknown Republican newcomers, Josh Wostal and Donna Cameron Cepeda, in the statewide red wave.

Democrat Pat Kemp is term-limited in District 6, the seat coming open.

Davison, a fiscal conservative who says the county budget has grown too fast, lost in commissioner primaries in 2002 and 2004, and lost narrowly to Luis Viera for a Tampa City Council seat in a 2016 special election.

He filed to run for the District 6 seat in 2020, but withdrew when former Commissioner Sandy Murman entered the race.

He has served on the commission’s citizens advisory committee and county committees on transportation, health care and others. He says the county has failed to roll back tax rates when it could have with increased property values, and that likely future water and garbage service increases are unacceptable.

As a commissioner, Smith emphasized environmental protection and preventing sprawl, after winning a following on those issues as a civic activist in rapidly-developing south Hillsborough.

“I can’t stand to see some of the work I did that’s being undone,” she said, mentioning affordable housing, land use decisions that violate community plans and gopher tortoise protections.

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She said she’s not concerned about whether the top of the 2024 Republican ticket will drive GOP turnout, because local Democrats “are doing the groundwork and will be there during the election. We’re going to turn out the vote,” she said.

Local Democratic leader Alex Sink, Shaw’s mentor but also a supporter of Smith, declined to take sides in the potential primary, but said if the two face off, “Democrats are probably going to struggle” with a difficult decision “just because of the quality of the candidates.”

Local pols speculate on how the statewide political climate could affect the race. Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis leading the 2024 GOP ticket could spur Republican turnout, some believe, but if abortion rights advocates succeed in putting a constitutional amendment referendum on the ballot, it could boost Democratic turnout.