Hillsborough County commissioners face a range of tough decisions in the coming term, from paying for transportation projects to creating smarter development plans for fast-growing south county. Districts 1 and 3 are single-member districts, elected by the voters in those communities. Commissioners for these seats are elected to two-year terms, and paid $100,685 per year. The top vote-getters in the Aug. 18 primary will proceed to the general election Nov. 3.
District 1 (west county)
Democrats: Harry Cohen
Harry Cohen is one of the brightest spots on Tampa’s political scene. He is a thoughtful, principled leader whose proven experience makes him the standout in this race.
Cohen, 50, is an attorney who represented South Tampa on the Tampa City Council from 2011 to 2019. He was a sensible, tireless representative who worked to strike a balance between residential and business interests in mixed-use neighborhoods. Though a district councilman, Cohen saw the bigger picture of how transportation and job development factored into regional growth. His work as a top official in the Hillsborough County clerk of court’s office showed attention to detail and gave Cohen a broad understanding of local government.
Cohen would brace the county to face the social and financial impact of the coronavirus. He is right that the economic hit is likely to increase demands for social services over the immediate term, and widen the income gap that already is putting affordable housing out of reach. He is a strong supporter of new mass transit projects, updated infrastructure in fast-growing south county and smarter land development policies that take sea level rise and other climate-related impacts into consideration.
Jen McDonald, a 40-year-old small business owner and first-time candidate, has solid ideas for making development pay more of its own way and better targeting Hillsborough’s job development efforts. She wants to pay greater attention to how equally communities are served, and vows to be a leader in promoting cleaner technologies. Like Cohen, she supports Hillsborough’s transportation surtax and heavier investment in mass transit to create more commuting options. McDonald is a strong advocate for creating more walkable communities. She is prepared and confident and brings a rounded view from her strong civic connections.
Cohen, though, has more experience and better connections to push an agenda the two largely share. And he is widely respected in local government for his seriousness and integrity. After losing in the primary for Tampa mayor last year, Cohen was tapped by incoming Mayor Jane Castor to co-chair her transition teams, reflecting his depth on policy issues and the professional and personal skills he brings to office. The Tampa Bay Times recommends Harry Cohen in the Democratic primary for Hillsborough County Commission, District 1.
Republicans: Scott Levinson
Republicans have a choice between two first-time candidates — an insider with no real plans and an outsider who has at least considered how county government can be more responsive and efficient. Scott Levinson seems far more committed to the gritty work of local office.
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Levinson, 55, is a former small business owner who since 2015 has served as executive director of the Tampa Bay Youth Football League. Levinson said he was motivated to run by his experience in dealing with the county as a youth sports organizer. “Nothing happens quick,” he said. “If you don’t represent special interests, you can’t get anything done.”
Levinson said he would improve communications at County Center, expand public input and push for more timely decision-making. He wants to examine staffing levels and salaries, which Levinson calls “bloated,” and bring a sharper eye to locally-funded job incentives. He supports a transportation surtax, but opposes budgetary set-asides, insisting the county commission allocate transportation funding. Levinson agreed with the board’s recent decision to increase impact fees on new development, saying that growth should pay for itself. He wants public infrastructure to keep pace with new demand for expansion in the rural areas. He also wants a regional approach to improving connectivity across the Tampa Bay area.
Tony Morejon, 62, retired in 2018 after working as the county’s community affairs liaison since 1994. Though a county employee for decades, he offers no specifics on the issues, aside — like Levinson — from opposing a tax-funded stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays. Morejon talks more about his connections than any agenda. “I know how the county works,” he said. “I’m the guy who pushes the buttons.”
Levinson does not bask in self-importance or traffic in talking points. He has lived his entire life in District 1, and as a regular at commission meetings, knows the background to major issues facing the county. He seems a far better fit for elected office and the Republicans’ strongest choice. The Tampa Bay Times recommends Scott Levinson in the Republican primary for Hillsborough County Commission, District 1.
District 3 (central county)
Democrats: Thomas Scott
Democrats have an embarrassment of riches in this five-way primary for a central Tampa seat. All the candidates have contributed to their community in meaningful, if varying, ways. But Thomas Scott stands out for his deep elected experience and moving presence behind the scenes. He has brought people together and notched progress for decades in some of Tampa’s hardest-hit neighborhoods.
Scott, 66, has served as senior pastor of 34th Street Church of God in Tampa for 40 years. He was first elected to the Hillsborough County Commission in 1996, thanks to building a broad constituency, and was reelected to two additional terms. Scott was elected to the Tampa City Council in 2007, serving to 2011. Recognized for his even-handedness, Scott was elected by his colleagues as chairman of both the county commission and city council. He put the visibility of that office to good use, championing transportation, urban development, housing and equal opportunity issues.
Like the other Democrats in the race, Scott vows to make mass transit and affordable housing top priorities. But his agenda is also wider, from targeted job development to civil rights issues. Scott’s commission experience gives him an edge as the county prepares to shoulder the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. Having served in both city and county government, he also understands the need for cooperation at the local level, and brings strong relationships and a solid reputation to the role as a community leader. His work on improving the infrastructure of East Tampa — notably, straightening 40th Street — has improved public safety and been a catalyst for the community.
Gwen Myers, 66, is a former state tax auditor who retired from Hillsborough County government in 2013 as a supervisor of its health care programs. Though a first-time candidate, she is well acquainted with county government and her experience handling health care and other social services would be a major asset for this urban district. Frank Reddick, 64, was a strong advocate for parks and neighborhood equity during his tenure on the Tampa City Council from 2011 to 2019. Sky U. White, 36, a nursing care caseworker who ran unsuccessfully for the commission in 2018, has creative ideas for expanding affordable housing and an energy level and personality to be effective. Ricardo “Rick” Fernandez, a 65-year-old attorney, legal recruiter and civic activist, has been a strong proponent of protecting the downtown Tampa neighborhoods from the state’s interstate expansion plans.
Scott has proven his ability to advance the ball on Tampa’s urban priorities. And he’s heavily involved outside elected office and between elections in improving conditions in the district, from expanding voter outreach and family support programs to building stronger bonds between law enforcement and heavily-minority neighborhoods. He is the best choice in a strong field for what he has both accomplished and continues to offer. The Tampa Bay Times recommends Thomas Scott in the Democratic primary for Hillsborough County Commission, District 3.
Candidates not recommended by the editorial board are offered an opportunity to reply. They can send replies of up to 150 words by 5 p.m. July 27 to Editor of Editorials Graham Brink at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news