Democrat Brian Willis, first-time candidate, would consider running in Hillsborough again

Brian Willis proved to be a capable fundraiser during his run for a County Commission seat.
Brian Willis proved to be a capable fundraiser during his run for a County Commission seat.
Published Sept. 8, 2016

TAMPA — Brian Willis failed in his run for the Democratic nomination for Hillsborough County Commission District 6.

But the Tampa lawyer said his first foray into politics may not be his last.

"I'm interested in service, and I think we need good people running, and if an opportunity is there, I'll think about running again," Willis said.

"It's been a great experience, and I really enjoyed it and meeting people and getting out there and talking about issues, and if I'm fortunate enough to get the opportunity again, if it's the right time, I'll definitely consider it."

County Democrats would gladly welcome another run from Willis. They have struggled with depth on their bench of prospective candidates in the past.

Peeking ahead to future elections, Ione Townsend, chairwoman of the Hillsborough County Democratic Party, expects Willis will run again for a county seat in 2018 or 2020.

"I'm very thrilled that he was in that race and he's going to stay involved," Townsend said. "I think his passion rests in the area of Hillsborough County issues; that's his vision and where his interests are, and I would suspect he would be a formidable candidate for a future County Commission race."

Willis finished third in the Aug. 30 primary election with 23 percent of the vote, closely behind second-place finisher Tom Scott. Pat Kemp won the four-person race at 45 percent.

Despite the result, Willis said he walked away encouraged. He was up against three better-known local politicians — Kemp is a former Hillsborough County Democratic chairwoman, Scott served previously on the County Commission and the Tampa City Council and John Dicks was a Plant City commissioner — and name recognition was always going to be a battle. He was a vocal advocate for transportation issues in the region and served on several citizens advisory groups but hadn't run for office.

"We knew that this was a race in which we would have to build steam," he said. "That's why we got in early. We started from zero. Every vote we got was a new vote."

Candidates are often unsuccessful the first time around. Kemp lost her bids for the commission in 2014 and state House in 2010. Tim Schock, the Republican businessman who will face Kemp in November, lost a primary for county commission in 2014, as well.

At 33, Willis will certainly have opportunities to run again. He proved to be a capable fundraiser during his 16-month campaign, and the $111,000 he raised was more than any other Democrat in the race.

"Brian ran this race to win it. This was not a test balloon," said Alan Clendenin, vice chairman of the state Democratic Party. "He ran a strong race. He's one of those candidates that on Wednesday could show up with any coffee shop in Tampa and hold his head high. He ran a good campaign, he stayed on message and he's going to be an excellent future candidate."

Throughout the campaign, Willis attempted to cut into Kemp's support by questioning her commitment to solving Hillsborough's transportation woes. While Kemp advocated for more transit, she was critical of a county plan to raise the sales tax by a half-cent for 30 years to pump $3.6 billion into local roads, buses and other transportation fixes.

Willis supported the proposal. After it twice failed, he said that as commissioner he would lead a citizen petition drive to force a sales tax surcharge for transportation onto the ballot.

He still supports the idea but added that it would need more local leaders behind it. Already, some have emerged.

"Campaigns are ultimately trying to win and promote your ideas, so I've been encouraged to see Bob Buckhorn embrace that idea," he said of Tampa's mayor.

With Willis' campaign in the rearview mirror, he said he will return to practicing law — he took a leave from his job at Shumaker, Loop and Kendrick to run — and will take some time to decompress with his wife and friends.

There may be some TV bingeing in his future, too.

"I'm a big Game of Thrones fan," Willis said. "So that's probably going to be what I'm going to spend some time watching."

Contact Steve or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno