1. Opinion

Times recommends: For U.S. House

The Tampa Bay Times makes its recommendations for U.S. House of Representatives for the Aug. 28 primary elections.
The Tampa Bay Times makes its recommendations for U.S. House of Representatives for the Aug. 28 primary elections.
Published Aug. 2, 2018

Congress faces serious challenges ranging from foreign policy to the future of health care. Rising federal deficits remain an issue, along with ensuring the long-term future of Social Security and Medicare. In the Tampa Bay area, no incumbents face primaries and there will be at least one new House member with the retirement of U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross of Lakeland. Representatives are elected to two-year terms and are paid $174,000 per year.

Chris Hunter | District 12, Democrats

Chris Hunter is an ideal candidate for Democrats in conservative U.S. House District 12, which covers north Pinellas County, all of Pasco County and a sliver of northwest Hillsborough County. Much of that region has been represented for decades by a Republican named Bilirakis — either incumbent Gus or his father, Mike. Hunter is a former FBI agent and federal prosecutor who worked under both Republican and Democratic presidents, and he should appeal to swing voters in both parties.

Hunter, 45, grew up in Pennsylvania and received his bachelor's and law degrees from Boston College. He was a local prosecutor in Boston at the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which inspired him to join the FBI. He later joined the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami and then in Tampa, prosecuting health care fraud. Mixed into his experience are short stints in private law practice.

As a candidate, the Pasco County resident talks about shared American values, service to community and how voters from both political parties seek honest elected officials who are problem solvers. Hunter supports the special counsel's investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election, banning military-style assault weapons and normalizing relations with Cuba. He opposes repealing the Affordable Care Act, which he would seek to improve; the Trump administration's tariffs; and any expansion of offshore drilling. He agrees with Republicans that efforts should be increased to fight the opioid crisis.

Stephen Perenich, 50, is a tax consultant who grew up in Tarpon Springs, returned in 2015 and is a former Republican who became a Democrat last year. He supports creating a living wage, pursuing universal health care and changing Social Security to increase benefits by lifting the earnings cap on Social Security payroll taxes.

Robert Tager, 52, is a Clearwater criminal defense lawyer making his second run for this congressional seat. He opposes any adjustment to the offshore drilling moratorium and supports a ban on assault weapons and some form of universal health care.

Hunter is the best-financed and best-positioned to provide the toughest challenge for the Republican incumbent. In the Democratic primary for U.S. House District 12, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Chris Hunter.

George Buck | District 13, Republicans

George Buck was dissatisfied with a workshop on veterans benefits held in December by U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg. So the Republican decided to do something about it and run for Congress in District 13, which covers all of St. Petersburg and most of Pinellas County.

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Buck, 62, is a disaster management consultant who lives in St. Petersburg and is making his first run for political office. He formerly headed fire science programs and founded a terrorism preparedness institute at St. Petersburg College, and he helped lead centers for disaster management and terrorism defense at the University of South Florida. He is a military veteran who worked as a firefighter in Texas and moved to Pinellas County about 25 years ago.

Buck opposes a ban on assault weapons and supports repeal of the Affordable Care Act. He believes so-called Dreamers, younger undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children and have been protected from deportation by former President Barack Obama's executive order, deserve some accommodation if they meet even tougher requirements. He supports building a wall along the southern border and renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Brad Sostack, 36, of St. Petersburg is a first-time candidate who describes himself as a pro-Trump, fiscally conservative Republican. He is a military veteran who supports the Second Amendment, tax cuts and restrictions on abortion.

In the Republican primary for U.S. House District 13, the Tampa Bay Times recommends George Buck.

Kristen Carlson | District 15, Democrats

The three Democrats in this race generally agree on the broad outlines of the major issues. They support a robust federal role in guaranteeing health insurance, a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers — undocumented immigrants brought into the U.S. as children — and free and fair trade. Kristen Carlson's professional and life experience, and her long history in the district, make her the party's strongest choice in this race for an open seat created by the retirement of Republican Rep. Dennis Ross of Lakeland.

Carlson, 64, is a Lakeland attorney with a rich background in government, business and agriculture. A former prosecutor now in private practice, she worked for Florida's Department of Citrus for many years as a senior attorney and general counsel. District 15— an agriculture-rich area which covers parts of Hillsborough, Polk and Lake counties — could hardly have a representative more attuned to its needs. Her 37 years in Polk give her an institutional history her challengers cannot match.

Carlson understands the difference between fair trade and the threat that President Donald Trump's tariffs pose to the area's job base. She would be a strong voice for holding trading partners accountable without isolating the U.S. in a self-defeating trade war. Her experience in drafting legislation and long track record of working in Tallahassee and Washington would enable her to be effective from the start.

Andrew P. Learned, 31, a U.S. Navy veteran from Valrico who owns a youth tutoring center, is a forward-thinker with energy. Raymond "Ray" Pena, 61, of Lakeland, a retired California police detective who operates a helicopter service, is particularly strong on health care issues. But neither matches Carlson's hands-on experience.

In the Democratic primary for U.S. House District 15, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Kristen Carlson.

Neil Combee | District 15, Republicans

Neil Combee stands out in this crowded field for his experience in government and with issues critical to this district, from water resources to agriculture. He has a feel for the people and character of this district, which covers parts of Hillsborough, Polk and Lake counties.

Combee, 59, served 16 years on the Polk County Commission. He is a former board member of the Southwest Florida Water Management District and served nearly six years in the Florida House before being tapped by the Trump administration last year to become state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency, a post he left to run for Congress.

That experience gives Combee an advantage in handling a range of state and federal issues that are critical to the district, from trade, agricultural and environmental policy to flood protection.

Sean Harper, 48, a Lakeland builder, wants to cut regulations to create a friendlier environment for small business. Danny Kushmer, 55, a long-time agriculture and natural resources executive, has a solid grasp of farming issues, state government and the regulatory environment. Ed Shoemaker, 58, is a licensed counselor who criticizes illegal immigration. Ross Spano, 52, a Dover lawyer who is leaving a Florida House seat he has held since 2012, has spent his time in office championing noncontroversial issues.

Combee's support for the Trump administration's tariffs isn't unusual in a Republican primary, and he is more practical than other candidates in this race for an open seat created by the retirement of Republican Dennis Ross of Lakeland. In the Republican primary for U.S. House District 15, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Neil Combee.

David Shapiro | District 16, Democrats

David Shapiro's practical agenda makes him the strongest Democrat in this race.

Shapiro, 58, a civil attorney in Sarasota, offers a platform that mixes traditional Democratic stances with attention to local concerns in this three-county district on the southern stretch of the bay area. He would focus on protecting Social Security and Medicare, and veterans services. Shapiro unequivocally opposes offshore oil drilling in Florida. He supports legislation to protect the so-called Dreamers, younger undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children, even if that requires a comprehensive deal with Republicans on border security. He said the Affordable Care Act has "turned out to be a lot better" than many predicted and supports fixing the law rather than repealing it.

Jan Schneider, 71, is a Sarasota attorney who offers a more progressive platform. She would transition the Affordable Care Act into a single-payer system similar to Medicare, and she takes a tougher position against the Trump administration's trade policies. But the two are largely in sync on the issues and in their belief that there are several policy areas where both political parties can agree.

The major difference here is electability. Schneider has run for Congress several times before, losing most recently to incumbent Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, in 2016. Shapiro appears far more organized and determined to wage a high-profile campaign. His more nuanced stance on the issues also seems like a better fit for the three-county district, which includes the Hillsborough communities of FishHawk, Lithia, Apollo Beach and Sun City Center.

In the Democratic primary for U.S. House District 16, the Tampa Bay Times recommends David Shapiro.


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