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Redistricting makes for unclear battle lines in Brandon legislative race

House District 59 in east Hillsborough looks like a prime target for the Republican-led Legislature to try to change its boundaries and flip it red.
Attorney Michael Minardi, right,  a Tampa lawyer best known as an advocate for legalized marijuana and for representing defendants in marijuana-related crimes, has filed to run in the east Hillsborough District 59 House race. He currently lives in South Tampa.
Attorney Michael Minardi, right, a Tampa lawyer best known as an advocate for legalized marijuana and for representing defendants in marijuana-related crimes, has filed to run in the east Hillsborough District 59 House race. He currently lives in South Tampa. [ Times (2013) ]
Published Aug. 21

One of the toughest battles for a legislative seat in the Tampa Bay area in 2022 could break out in the Brandon-based House District 59, a seat now held by first-term Democrat Andrew Learned. But who his Republican opponent might be is unclear.

State Rep. Andrew Learned, D-Valrico
State Rep. Andrew Learned, D-Valrico [ Learned campaign ]

With redistricting about to start, District 59 looks like a prime target for the Republican-led Legislature to try to change its boundaries and flip it red. And there’s a chance they’ll have a big-name candidate, in outgoing Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White.

But there’s currently another Republican filed – Michael Minardi, a Tampa lawyer best known as an advocate for legalized marijuana and for representing defendants or getting criminal records expunged in marijuana-related crimes.

The impending redistricting, however, has created uncertainty for many potential legislative candidates about where they will be running, and that could apply to Minardi.

Minardi lives in South Tampa, not in District 59, but he said he’s lived in Valrico in the past. He said he currently plans to run in the east Hillsborough district and will move there, as required by law, if elected. But he didn’t rule out switching to a Tampa-based seat like the one now held by Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa.

Toledo is considered likely by many Republicans to challenge state Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, instead of seeking re-election.

Learned won District 59 in 2020 by less than two percentage points. Long a Republican bastion, it has trended Democratic recently, but small changes could tilt it back toward the GOP.

Asked about the race, White, who’s term-limited next year as a commissioner and lives in District 59, had no direct comment and said he’s “focused on being the best county commissioner I can be for the next year.” But he added, “Certainly people have encouraged me to keep an eye on opportunities to remain in public service.”

Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White.

Learned said he’s ready for a campaign against any Republican.

The situation is one example of how impending redistricting is adding a layer of confusion statewide as next year’s legislative races shape up.

“Everybody’s in a holding pattern until reapportionment is finished,” said local GOP strategist Mark Proctor.

Minardi is chairman of Sensible Florida, which is pushing a constitutional amendment for adult recreational use and home growing of marijuana. The Supreme Court rejected its ballot language in June, and Minardi said he’s not sure whether the group will try for a 2022 ballot placement.

His House campaign will focus in part on liberalizing marijuana laws, which he said would produce tax revenue for education and violence prevention.

He acknowledged some Republicans oppose liberalization of marijuana laws, but said polling he has seen indicates, “They’re changing their tune.”

In a fundraising email when he filed in April, Minardi wrote, “Do you believe cannabis should be legal in Florida? I do. That is why I am excited to announce that I am running for State Representative for House District 59. … it is time to elect a fiscal conservative who understands the far-reaching benefits of cannabis.”

More St. Pete mayoral endorsements

Final rounds of mayoral endorsements popped up for Ken Welch, Wengay Newton and Darden Rice as Tuesday’s primary election approaches.

A second LGBT advocacy group, the LGBTQ+ Caucus of the state Democratic Party, has endorsed Welch over Rice, even though Rice would be the city’s first openly gay mayor.

Earlier, the LGBT caucus of the Pinellas Democratic party endorsed Welch. Former Pinellas County party Chair Susan McGrath, a Rice opponent, is a leader in both caucuses.

Rice, meanwhile, has been endorsed by the political arm of Equality Florida, the state’s premier gay rights advocacy group, and the national Lesbian PAC.

One of the state’s most politically active and influential unions, Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, issued a dual endorsement of both Welch and Rice; and former Mayor Rick Baker has endorsed Newton.

Stephenson proclaims innocence

Temple Terrace City Manager Charles Stephenson has issued a statement denying wrongdoing in response to an anonymous accusation that he falsified city records to conceal awarding a city contract to an unlicensed contractor.

Meanwhile, City Attorney Pam Cichon acknowledged that records concerning the matter, which the Times sought and was denied, are in fact public documents.

Charles Stephenson is city manager of Temple Terrace.
Charles Stephenson is city manager of Temple Terrace. [ City of Temple Terrace ]

“I am respectful of City Council’s wishes to conduct an investigation,” Stephenson’s statement said. “I am confident that once concluded … I will be fully exonerated.

“I am fully prepared to cooperate in the investigation.”

Council member Meredith Abel presented the accusation to the council in a meeting Aug. 3, saying she received it anonymously in a packet containing supporting city contracting and payment records. The council ordered an investigation.

The Times requested the materials including the city records, but were denied by City Clerk Cheryl Mooney, who referred to instructions from Cichon.

State law exempts investigative records from public scrutiny, but that often doesn’t apply to documents that are public but then become part of an investigation, said Virginia Hamrick of the Florida First Amendment Foundation.

Cichon said the city records cited as part of the accusation remain public and can be released.

Dems postpone, Repubs don’t

The Hillsborough County Democratic Party has postponed its upcoming Kennedy-King Dinner, the party’s major annual fundraising event, citing the Covid 19 surge, while Republicans in Hillsborough and Pasco Counties are going ahead with plans for similar in-person fundraising dinners.

The Democrats’ event, planned for Sept. 18, has been delayed until Dec. 11.

“We do not want to be responsible for a superspreader event,” said Democratic Chair Ione Townsend. “You cannot eat and drink and network with a mask on. So we’re going to delay until the threat is reduced significantly.”

The Hillsborough GOP Lincoln Day dinner, planned for Aug. 27 at an event venue on Hillsborough Avenue, is going ahead as planned, with controversial U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene as speaker, according to the party’s web site.

So is the Pasco County GOP’s Reagan Day Dinner, with Gov. Ron DeSantis as featured speaker, Sept. 10 at Saddlebrook resort, said Chairman James Mallo.

“Obviously covid is a concern and masks are encouraged, but not required” for the event, Mallo said. “It’s a personal choice, a personal preference. … I’ve been vaccinated and I believe that in certain circumstances masks are appropriate.”

Mallo also cited in-person campaign events he said were conducted recently by local Democratic organizations and candidates.