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  1. Opinion

Hillsborough County Commission: Times Editorial Board recommendations

The right leadership for a growing county.

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; the election for countywide District 6 is to a four-year term. Commissioners are paid $100,685 per year. The general election is Nov. 3.

Related: How the Times makes its political recommendations.

District 1 (west county)

Harry Cohen

Harry Cohen, Democrat, running for District 1 Hillsborough County Commission [ Harry Cohen ]

Harry Cohen is one of those refreshing candidates who’s actually as solid as he appears. He is a thoughtful leader who has served local government in a variety of capacities and left things better as a result. Cohen is a sensible voice for smart growth and neighborhood equity, and he would be a role model and bridge builder on the board.

Cohen, 50, is an attorney who represented South Tampa on the Tampa City Council from 2011 to 2019. He was a tireless representative who worked to strike a balance between residential and business interests in the popular, mixed-use neighborhoods. He has a command of detail because he does his homework, and he is genuinely interested in hearing from the broadest possible cross-section of the community.

Cohen’s experience on city council and as a top Hillsborough court clerk administrator give him a firm grip of the economic and social challenges posed by the coronavirus. He is right that the pandemic and the resulting economic fallout will increase demands for social services and housing. But he doesn’t lose sight of the bigger picture — primarily the region’s need to modernize its infrastructure to remain appealing and competitive. His concern for the impacts of sprawl and sea level rise are especially important in the district’s fast-growing south county suburbs.

Scott Levinson, 55, won the Republican primary in August by offering practical ideals for how county government could be more responsive to its citizens. A former small business owner who since 2015 has served as executive director of the Tampa Bay Youth Football League, Levinson said he wants to reduce the influence of special interests, bring about more timely decision-making and take a sharper eye to county spending. Like Cohen, he supports Hillsborough’s transportation surtax (now bottled up in court) and the board’s recent moves to increase fees on new development.

Cohen, though, has a broader, more relevant agenda and the experience and connections to get things done. And he has brought a positive energy to his public roles that even his former political opponents admire. 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 Editorial Board recommends Democrat Harry Cohen for Hillsborough County Commission, District 1.

District 3 (central county)

Gwen Myers

Gwen Myers, Democrat, running for District 3 Hillsborough County Commission [ Gwen Myers ]

Gwen Myers emerged from a crowded race with big names to win the Democratic primary in August, and her focus on health care, housing and mass transportation is the perfect agenda for this inner-city district.

Myers is a first-time candidate but hardly out of her depth. The 66-year-old former state tax auditor retired from Hillsborough County government in 2013, having spent 25 years supervising the county’s housing, health care and community development programs. That experience and the relationships she’s built would make her effective from day one in championing these key priorities for the district. And she’d bring her deep understanding to the commission just as housing has become a top tier issue for local governments in Hillsborough and Tampa.

Myers wants to better coordinate land use, housing and transportation decisions, aligning her with the board’s emerging thinking. Her experience in helping the hardest-hit is invaluable during this pandemic, as the county looks to further offer housing and utility assistance. Longer term, she wants to promote more mixed-income communities, which could foster more small businesses, make neighborhoods safer and more stable and help racially integrate this central Tampa district. Myers is also a strong supporter of new mass transit initiatives, and she lent her respected voice to the drive for a countywide transportation surtax in 2018.

Her opponent, Republican Maura Cruz Lanz, is a 64-year old Wellswood resident and co-owner of a family-based construction company. She promises to be an advocate for small business, smart growth and affordable housing but has not offered many details publicly or waged much of a campaign.

District 3 stretches from Bearss Avenue south to Riverview and includes much of the city of Tampa. The district is 40 percent Black, and all five candidates in the Democratic primary rightly painted a tough picture of a community that has been under-served by both government and private industry. Voters here need a fighter, not a caretaker. Myers has honed her understanding of the district’s needs over a career and has the savvy and energy to address them. The Times Editorial Board recommends Democrat Gwen Myers for Hillsborough County Commission, District 3.

District 6 (countywide)

Patricia “Pat” Kemp

\uFEFFCommissioner Pat Kemp\uFEFF said getting a trans-portation sales tax referendum on the November ballot \u201Csounds like a pretty steep hill to climb.\u201D [ Courtesy of Pat Kemp ]

The opposing camps paint Commissioner Patricia “Pat” Kemp as a proponent of zero-growth and Commissioner Sandra L. Murman as a surrogate for the development industry. In reality, the two commissioners bring a more nuanced approach to growth and other major policy matters. Kemp, though, has a smarter strategy for growth and a more balanced perspective of the county’s diverse needs. She deserves another term.

Kemp, 63, is a Tampa attorney and former aide to then-Commissioner Kathy Castor, who is now in Congress. Elected to the countywide seat in 2016, Kemp has delivered on her campaign promises of supporting managed growth, the environment and new mass transit options. Kemp has pushed for new development to pay more of the costs for needed new infrastructure. And she has promoted urban infill, mixed-use communities and transit-oriented development as tools for creating more lively, sustainable communities.

Kemp would continue this agenda in a second term. She would seek to place another transportation tax on the ballot should the Florida Supreme Court, in a case pending before it, invalidate the existing levy. Kemp also wants closer scrutiny of job development incentives, saying these considerations should go to higher-paying jobs and to grow already-established local companies. She is a check on the system, not a barrier to it, and the distinction matters.

Murman, too, has her particular appeal. She champions herself as a pro-business conservative with a sensible bent. A former state legislator, Murman is termed-out of her district seat on the commission which she has held since 2010. Like Kemp, she raises big-picture issues, from regional development to transportation planning. For decades, in both public and private life, Murman, 70, has been a tireless advocate for children, seniors and society’s most vulnerable. She has at times shaved the commission’s partisan edge and enabled the board to find consensus.

Kemp, though, is stronger on the core challenge facing the county — managing growth in a way that both maximizes potential while being fair to existing residents and businesses. Her righteous streak can be off-putting at times and undercut her sway with colleagues. But that’s a tactical flaw, not an example of bad judgment or waging the wrong battles. She is well-prepared and politically consistent, and the reality check she brings to the board was a long time coming. The Times Editorial Board recommends Democrat Patricia “Pat” Kemp for Hillsborough County Commission, District 6.

Related: All of the Times Editorial Board recommendations

Candidate replies

Candidates for Hillsborough County Commission 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. Oct. 10 to Editor of Editorials Graham Brink at gbrink@tampabay.com.

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

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