Who should be on the Hillsborough County Commission? Times Editorial Board recommendations
Cohen, Hagan, Smith and Overman are the best bets in November.
Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners.
Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Oct. 6, 2022|Updated Oct. 6, 2022

The Hillsborough County Commission faces major challenges in the coming years, from improving transportation and expanding affordable housing to meeting the increasing demands in fast-growing south county. Seats for Districts 1, 5 and 7 carry a four-year term; District 2 is a two-year term. Commissioners are paid $105,239 annually. The general election is Nov. 8.

Related: Read the Times recommendations in other races.

District 1 (west county): Harry Cohen, Democrat

Harry Cohen
Harry Cohen [ Harry Cohen ]

The incumbent, Democrat Harry Cohen, has demonstrated time and again an unfailing commitment to serve his community with distinction. His experience, judgment and integrity warrant him another term.

Cohen, a 52-year-old Tampa attorney, was first elected to the county commission in 2020 after serving eight years on the Tampa City Council. In both posts, he has been a strong advocate for smart growth, transportation improvements and investing in the core infrastructure that makes communities tick.

Cohen supports the transportation referendum on Hillsborough’s general election ballot, calling it “the best chance” for improving commutes and pedestrian safety in the years ahead. He understands that managing growth is key to protecting Hillsborough’s competitiveness and quality of life. Cohen supports resiliency efforts to better protect people and property from coastal flooding. While he supports some tax incentives to business, Cohen says they must be limited in scope and targeted to “concrete” goals.

Republican Scott D. Levinson lost this race to Cohen in 2020 by a slim, 51-49 margin. Levinson, 57, a longtime wholesale food distributor, opposes the transportation tax referendum, saying the county needs to prioritize its spending rather than raise new revenues. Levinson supports environmental efforts, regional cooperation and a balanced approach to job incentives. He is a moderate who believes that government would be better served by having people from more varied walks of life.

Cohen, though, brings an unusual combination of competence, creativity and level headedness to county government. He is widely respected for his collegial approach to problem solving and the responsiveness he provides his constituents.

For Hillsborough County Commission District 1, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Harry Cohen.

District 2 (north county): Ken Hagan, Republican

Ken Hagan
Ken Hagan

This matchup is also a repeat, as Republican Ken Hagan beat Democrat Angela Birdsong for this north Hillsborough commission seat in 2018 by a 52-48 margin. Hagan still is the best choice.

Hagan is the commission’s longest-serving member, having been first elected in 2002. He still has a vibrant agenda, and his institutional experience is critical for a county struggling with growing pains.

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Hagan, 55, has long focused on building Hillsborough’s jobs base, and on providing very different communities throughout the county with the services they need. He supports stronger transit connections between the suburbs and major work centers. Hagan also wants to focus more on improving moderate-density suburban communities, which he feels get lost in the tug-of-war between rural and urban areas. For example, he sees the potential for redevelopment in the University of South Florida area of north Tampa, where huge tracts of under-used land could be turned into mixed-use communities. Hagan knows the area and the major players, and his attention to detail helps get things done.

Birdsong, a 62-year old insurance agent, supports greater investment in housing, mass transit and career apprenticeship programs. She supports tax-subsidized job incentives and wants the county more involved in growing locally owned businesses. While her agenda seems sound, Birdsong is light on details. In her second try for office, Birdsong still fails to show a solid grasp of county government.

Hagan is more conversant on a range of policy issues. He is a strong voice for the suburbs who has a sharper vision for the region’s economy. Hagan has also been an advocate for causes that cross the partisan divide, from the arts, sports, parks and entertainment to the environment and animal services. He has a keen appreciation of the county’s essential needs and what’s required to grow the region’s appeal.

For Hillsborough County Commission District 2, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Ken Hagan.

District 5 (countywide): Mariella Smith, Democrat

Mariella Smith
Mariella Smith [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Mariella Smith is one of those smart, forward-looking leaders that local governments need more of, and she deserves another term.

Smith, a 68-year-old Democrat, ran her own graphic design business for 30 years before first winning election to the commission in 2018. A longtime critic of the county’s uncontrolled sprawl, she has worked to better manage growth and to force developers to pay more of their fair share for the impacts of development.

Smith has been instrumental in turning around decades of bad planning, which has been bad for residents, businesses and taxpayers alike. She supports a balanced approach toward improving transportation, better aligning infrastructure with development and stronger protections for wildlife habitat and natural resources. She also wants to make Hillsborough more resilient to extreme weather and rising seas, by raising bridges and roads, hardening public facilities, maintaining mangroves and wetlands and directing new residential development away from flood-prone areas.

Republican challenger Donna Cameron Cepeda, 59, is an Army veteran and minister who is running a low-profile campaign. Her website takes aim at lockdowns, vaccine mandates, critical race theory, abortion and “the transgenderism agenda.” None of this has anything to do with the pressing issues the county faces, and voters should not consider her a serious choice.

Smith has worked hard and fast in her first term to make a positive difference. She also has made county government more transparent to her constituents. As a former activist, she understands the value of returning calls and keeping citizens in the loop. Smith has spearheaded changes to give residents more input into development decisions that affect their neighborhoods. Her rounded vision and sense of fair play are essential for a countywide commissioner.

For Hillsborough County Commission District 5, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Mariella Smith.

District 7 (countywide): Kimberly Overman, Democrat

Kimberly Overman
Kimberly Overman [ TIMOTHY HEALY | Kimberly Overman ]

Democrat Kimberly Overman has delivered on her promises during her term, pushing smart growth policies, improved transportation and other priorities that improve the region’s quality of life. She is the standout in this race.

Overman, a 64-year-old certified financial planner, was first elected to the commission in 2018 after a long history of civic involvement. Her grasp of business, development and neighborhood issues make her an effective advocate for managing growth. Overman has pushed a range of positive changes, from tying growth to jobs centers and infrastructure to promoting a broad range of transportation improvements. She recognizes that sustainable growth is key to Hillsborough’s long-term prosperity. Overman has also led the effort to expand affordable housing, a rising crisis throughout Tampa Bay. Her agenda is relevant, she does her homework and is mindful to the competing interests of neighborhoods countywide.

Her Republican challenger, Joshua Wostal, is a 38 year-old Navy veteran and small business owner. For a first-time candidate, he has a solid grasp of how the county bureaucracy works and a clear plan for governing. Wostal vows to make smarter spending decisions, committing more of the budget to core infrastructure needs. He says the county “shouldn’t be buying land with taxpayer dollars to develop housing,” preferring instead to partner with private industry to spur sustainable growth, build the tax base and promote clean-energy technologies, which would help address climate change. Wostal also speaks convincingly of his desire to make county government more transparent.

Overman, though, better appreciates the role that local government plays in building a prosperous region. Smart planning doesn’t happen by accident; Hillsborough is catching up on the mistakes of the last 30 years, and Overman is one reason why. She’s not the best listener and doesn’t always read the room. But Overman brings a clear eye and resolve that the times demand.

For Hillsborough County Commission District 7, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Kimberly Overman.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.