Former state Rep. Larry Ahern is running to unseat two-term Pinellas County Commissioner Janet C. Long in District 1, but his campaign, so far, has avoided facing her.
Ahern, a Republican, has declined to participate with his Democratic opponent in interviews and forums with a dozen of the most well-known advocacy organizations, places where candidates typically compete for votes. From the Pinellas County Realtors and League of Women Voters to the chambers of commerce in St. Petersburg and Clearwater, Ahern has been a no-show at candidate events held virtually this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
On his campaign website, Ahern, 65, cites limited government, rule of law and liberty, buzzwords aligned with Republican talking points in an election year dominated by the presidential race. But with Ahern declining to explain his stances in public, there has been little opportunity for voters to compare the candidates for this county-wide seat.
“I think he got into the race thinking he could ride on the coattails of the president,” said Long, 75. “If you’re really doing it for the right reasons, you should be proud to stand up and tell your citizens what you believe in. It isn’t to sit in the shadows and never speak publicly about the issues.”
Ahern has not responded to repeated requests for an interview with Tampa Bay Times over the past two months. Ahern declined to be interviewed for this story and responded in an email that Long "doesn’t think she has to be held accountable to the voters and that no one should run against her.”
He said he has been meeting with voters in person, “not just sitting in front of a computer for a Zoom meeting.”
“I’m not surprised that is Janet Long’s response to me running for this County Commission seat," Ahern said. "It shows her arrogance and a disconnect to the people she is supposed to represent.”
Long, who began serving in local government in 2002 with a term on the Seminole City Council, has outpaced Ahern’s $97,389 in contributions with her haul of $178,665.
Ahern released a TV ad that attacked Long’s spending during her time in office, characterizing her as an out-of-touch government insider that has wasted thousands of dollars on international travel. Long said the travel involved meetings with airlines and other industry leaders in an effort to grow local tourism.
One of the three priorities Ahern highlights on his campaign website is public safety. Long, however, secured the endorsement of the Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association, a union that represents employees of Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and six police departments. She is also endorsed by the Pinellas Realtor Organization, the Sierra Club, the West Central Florida Labor Council and 14 Pinellas mayors, including those of the two largest cities: St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, a Democrat, and Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, a Republican.
The two have faced off before. In 2010 Ahern, then a first-time political candidate and owner of a swimming pool service business, unseated Long in her race for a third term in what was then Florida House District 51.
Ahern served in the state House for eight years at a time when Republicans continued their reign of controlling the Legislature by holding an overwhelming majority of seats. Yet he was known more as a back-bencher than a power broker. Forced to leave Tallahassee because of term limits, Ahern ran in 2018 for the District 6 seat on the County Commission. He lost in a three-way Republican primary.
Long won a seat on the Pinellas County Commission in 2012 by campaigning against incumbent Republican Neil Brickfield’s vote that removed fluoride from the drinking water. The new commission added fluoride back the next year.
As a Florida lawmaker, Ahern supported efforts to diminish authority of cities and counties, which Long said makes him a poor candidate for local government. He backed the unsuccessful attempt to abolish tax-supported community redevelopment agencies and a failed proposal that would have required cities to seek legislative approval for local ordinances that impacted business and commerce.
“When my opponent was in the Legislature, every single issue, every one of them that came before him that had anything to do with local government, he voted against it, and now he has the nerve to say he wants to serve in local government?” Long said.
Ahern’s campaign website states he stands for preserving freedom, enacting term limits and lowering taxes, but he did not respond to specific policy questions about how he would achieve his goals.
Long said a priority is to continue efforts to prepare for the impacts of climate change. In 2018 she helped launch the Tampa Bay Regional Resiliency Coalition, a body to coordinate local governments and stakeholders in climate related policy. She said she is now working to establish a state resiliency office in tandem with the Florida Association of Counties.
She has been an advocate for the SunRunner project that broke ground in August, which will be the region’s first bus rapid transit line.
Long is now advocating the county seek funding less from the Legislature and more from state funds dedicated to strategic intermodal systems and other “creative ways to fund our transportation projects while focusing on new and emerging technologies.”
“To me, public service is a calling way deep inside of you,” Long said. “It’s that inner feeling of wanting to help people, to give your energy and time to make your community better.”
But overshadowing local needs like affordable housing and infrastructure is the coronavirus pandemic and public opinion of the county response.
Since the county commission in June passed an ordinance requiring masks in most indoor public places, Long estimates she’s received thousands of calls and emails from anti-mask advocates promising to replace her with Ahern.
Long says in supporting the mask ordinance, she has been following the advice of health professionals and scientists.
“I want them to know I stood up for what I thought was right,” Long said. “If this mask mandate takes me out of office into forced retirement, I will consider it a badge of honor.”