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  1. Hillsborough

Democratic challenger faces uphill battle against incumbent State Senator Tom Lee

Florida Senate 20: Republican Tom Lee (left) will face Democrat Kathy Lewis (right) in November. [Florida Senate / Lewis campaign]
Published Nov. 1, 2018

Kathy Lewis was fed up.

For months, she had tried unsuccessfully to obtain full Medicaid and other benefits for her disabled 18-year-old daughter, who suffered from extreme insomnia and needed 24-hour care.

Frustrated with the snail pace of the process, Lewis said she fired off an email at 3 a.m. that landed in the inboxes of state officials and the office of then U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price.

At 9 a.m., she got a call from Price's office. Within two days, Lewis's daughter's case was resolved and shortly after she received access to her benefits.

But the ordeal left the 56-year-old writer worried for other families that were in a similar position – and inspired her to help them.

"It made me incredibly angry that I had to write to D.C. to get people in Florida to do their jobs," said Lewis, who lives in Wesley Chapel. "There's fraud and waste in the system and no one is doing anything about it. So I will."

Lewis, a mother of two, is the Democratic challenger to Republican Sen. Tom Lee who has represented District 20 since 2012. Lee first served in the Legislature from 1996 to 2006. He was Senate president from 2004 to 2006.

Unseating Lee, a homebuilder, could be an uphill battle for Lewis as District 20 leans Republican and covers the corner where Hillsborough, Pasco, and Polk counties meet and includes much of the University of South Florida area.

But Lewis said she isn't deterred.

"'Unwinnable' means nothing to me," she said. "It's time to stop letting Tom Lee walk on to the job just because no one else is challenging him."

But even with 20 years of experience under his belt, Lee said he isn't taking anything for granted and is campaigning aggressively as he has for every election he's entered.

"Nobody owes me anything," he said. "I have to get up every day and earn my community's support."

Lee said his top community concerns include "extraordinary growth" along the Interstate-4 corridor, which has "presented a number of challenges."

"I've watched what happened in Pasco happen in Hillsborough County 25 years ago," he said. "When business grows fast, you have to build up infrastructure."

If re-elected, the Thonotosassa resident said he'll return to Tallahassee ready to tackle those economic development and infrastructure challenges, as well as the state's burgeoning healthcare issues including Medicaid expansion.

The latter is familiar territory for Lee, who in 2015 supported a plan to tap federal dollars to expand the program. Lee's efforts were mentioned by Tallahassee mayor and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum during his debate with Republican candidate and former Congressman Ron DeSantis.

Both candidates are correct in their assessments that using the emergency room to seek care for medical conditions is unhealthy and inefficient, he said.

"It makes sense for people to have some insurance on the front end," Lee said. "The question is how do you finance that? We're going to have to have federal government's help."

Education is another area where change and new ideas will be necessary to see improvement, he said.

"The Legislature spends 70 to 80 percent of money on education and healthcare and if you're not trying to innovate in those areas, you're playing small ball," Lee said.

Lewis said the key to increasing teacher pay could be in an overhaul of the state's testing system.

"I believe we need to look at how (testing) benefits students … and if it doesn't make sense we need to end it … and use that money to pay our teachers," she said.

Lee, who's revered as a level-headed fiscal conservative with moderate views on social policy, said he's prepared for the "give and take" that's needed to solve the problems that affect all constituents.

"I know politics doesn't put up a lot of points on the board," he said "Whether they vote for me or not, I'm their senator."

Contact Kenya Woodard at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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