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  1. Florida Politics

Southshore voters motivated by local issues, national politics in 16th Congressional District race

South Hillsborough County is growing so rapidly that some parts of it look like a scene from The Lorax, the Dr. Seuss cautionary tale about environmental degradation. Bulldozers and backhoes are chewing up former pasture land everywhere you look, making way for large subdivisions filled with homes.

The Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization estimates that the population of the Southshore area grew 11 percent from 2010-15, double the rate of the county as a whole. As Southshore's population approaches 200,000, nearly 70 percent of residents live in the 16th congressional district, which was reconfigured in 2010 and also includes portions of Sarasota and Manatee counties.

The rapid growth has prompted the usual gripes about overbuilding, road congestion and lack of mass transit. Those gripes may be the one unifying theme in a congressional race this year pitting a well-funded Democrat against a six-term Republican incumbent in a district President Donald Trump won by 10 points in 2016.

"I moved here from Chicago six years ago and have put over 130,000 miles on my car," Bryce Bowden, 64, said at a recent fundraiser for David Shapiro, the Sarasota lawyer taking on Republican Vern Buchanan of Longboat Key. Bowden said public transit doesn't work in south Hillsborough.

"You see that over there?" said Bob Emerson, 62, taking a break from waving Buchanan signs at early voters at the SouthShore Regional Library to point at a construction site. "That used to be a pasture. Now they are building homes. Trying to get onto (Interstate) 75 at Big Bend is a nightmare."

One in four registered voters in District 16 is a Hillsborough resident. Those Hillsborough voters live in Gibsonton, Riverview, Fish Hawk, Apollo Beach, Sun City Center, Ruskin, Balm and Wimauma. The area has a large port, phosphate works, an electric plant with iconic stacks, marinas, bait shops and one of the nation's highest concentrations of carnival workers. There's a massive Amazon fulfillment center as well.

There is only so much, however, a congressman can do about congestion, largely an issue for state and local governments. But in interviews, Buchanan and Shapiro acknowledged the traffic problems and pledged to do something to help.

"I think public transportation has to be part of the package," Buchanan said.

"We need more of it," Shapiro said of mass transit, lambasting Gov. Rick Scott's decision to turn down federal funding for high-speed rail. "We have to start moving in that direction."

Other concerns raised by residents break down along more partisan lines.

For Frances Myers, 88, the race is largely about the economy and Buchanan's votes in support of last year's tax-cut measure.

"I'm glad we have 4.2 percent gross domestic product," Myers said while attending a Southshore Republican Club mingle in Sun City Center. "More people are off welfare."

"I don't like Buchanan's tax policies," said Jim Scinta, 66, one of about 70 Shapiro supporters who packed a room at the Alpha Pizza, Pasta and Prime restaurant in Apollo Beach for a recent low-dollar fundraising event.

Like other Democrats, Scinta also expressed anger at Buchanan's votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Unlike nearly everyone else in that room, however, Scinta was a recent convert.

A lifelong Republican, he said he changed parties six months ago, motivated by his outrage at Trump.

"He is a disgrace to our country," said Scinta, a retired chemical engineer living in Sun City Center. "He doesn't behave like a president."

Scinta's concern about Trump highlights a strong undercurrent expressed here by committed voters in both parties.

Linda Hawkins, 62, of Apollo Beach, said she doesn't remember ever voting in a midterm election before. But she was one of about a half-dozen Democrats who hosted the Shapiro event.

"It's the current political climate," she said.

At the Republican gathering in Sun City Center, voters expressed similar sentiments but aimed them at Democrats.

"I don't like the way the Democrats tried to destroy Kavanaugh and his family," Sun City Center resident Joe Ogle, 74, said of the contentious nomination and confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. "It didn't matter who Trump picked, the Democrats were out to destroy that pick."

Voters in the district have been energized by the Kavanaugh issue, said Betty James, president of the Sun City Center Republican Club.

"They are very enthusiastic," she said.

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

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