13 big questions facing Tampa Bay politics heading into fall

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

There’s no disputing the Tampa Bay region’s status as the most battleground-y of political battlegrounds in the ultimate swing state.

Tampa Bay is the market where presidential candidates spend tens of millions of dollars on TV ads. Tampa Bay is where a special election in 2014 for a congressional seat cost eight figures. This is where state Senate and House races can be more expensive than many states’ gubernatorial races.

And it’s only gonna be more expensive and competitive in 2016.

The Florida Supreme Court’s ordering of a redraw of the state’s congressional districts, as well as an agreement forced upon the Legislature to revise the state Senate districts, promises to upend regional politics in a way to which it is hard to find a suitable historical comparison.

Game changer is an understatement.

We’ll know a lot more about the state of Tampa Bay politics after the Legislature meets in special session in October, but the answers to these 10 questions will shape the immediate future for the region and – in some cases – the state.

What do the maps look like? (Part 1): The Supreme Court was very specific about what it wanted to see done to Tampa Bay’s congressional districts. The Hillsborough seat currently held by Democrat Kathy Castor should stay in Hillsborough and the Pinellas seat held by Republican David Jolly should absorb the Democratic/African American voters in south Pinellas. With shift, everything changes. The question is how much? The failed special session to redraw these districts saw attempts to revise Dennis Ross’ and Vern Buchanan’s seats. The whole affair feels like a game of musical chairs, except there are twice as many players as there are chairs.

What do the maps look like? (Part 2): When you get down to it, the fate of the free world depends on how the state Senate maps are redrawn. It’s widely assumed that lawmakers, roiled by infighting and rivalries, won’t be up to the task of revising its own lines. That would leave it to the courts, which could go in any number of directions. If the Supreme Court doesn’t like a Hillsborough congressional district snaking into Pinellas, why would it like a state Senate district doing the same thing? So will Jeff Brandes have to run against Jack Latvala in a GOP primary? Will Wilton Simpson and John Legg have to face off in a mostly undivided Pasco seat? The answers to these question not only will determine the political futures of several prominent pols, it could likely decide the Latvala vs. Joe Negron race to be president of the Florida Senate.

Will Jeff Brandes really pull the trigger on running against Jack Latvala? The prospect of Brandes vs. Latvala is almost too much for me to even write about, seeing as how both are dear friends. And it’s not like Brandes’ Senate colleagues want to draw him out of his South Pinellas seat. But the Supreme Court might do it, so if the rising star of Pinellas politics wants to remain in the Senate, he might have to run against its Dark Star. What a race that will be! It very well could be Florida’s first $15 million state Senate campaign. Latvala just held a lunch where 450 local politicos were in attendance, but Brandes’ campaign machine is bar none the best operation in the state. Please, someone — anyone — don’t let this race happen!

Has Charlie Crist learned his lesson from 2014? If, as expected, Jolly’s congressional seat is redrawn to include South Pinellas, the district is a perfect fit for former Gov. Charlie Crist. The early polling bears this out. But Crist will only win if a) he displays a genuine desire to serve in Congress and b) he’s learned something from his 2010 and 2014 losses. Eric Lynn is the kind of well-financed, determined underdog who could give Charlie fits. And Crist will run into real problems — especially among the African-American voters he’d be counting on in a general election — if Republican Rick Baker runs. Generically, a Democrat beats a Republican in CD 13, but there’d be nothing generic about a focused Rick Baker. This is your last chance, Charlie. Don’t blow it.

Will Pinellas’ Chris Sprowls emerge as Speaker Designate? Among the many internecine hotspots endangering Florida GOP hegemony, the race to be speaker of the Florida House in 2021 (!) has major implications for the Tampa Bay region because if Orlando’s Eric Eisnaugle loses his grip on this race, it’s likely state Rep. Sprowls will emerge as the victor. That would give Pinellas its first legislative leader since Democrat Peter Rudy Wallace was speaker. But if Eisnaugle hangs on, look for much of the Tampa Bay delegation to be relegated to the backbench.

What does Darryl Rouson do if SD 19 is redrawn to exclude Pinellas? It keeps coming back to the maps, doesn’t it? State Rep. Rouson could be either one of the big winners or losers emerging from redistricting. If the minority access seat currently occupied by Arthenia Joyner no longer comes across Tampa Bay, does Rouson enter a race for the South Pinellas state Senate seat? And when, if ever, does his wife throw her talented hat into the ring to succeed him? After all, is Tallahassee really ready for Wengay Newton?

Can Bob Buckhorn regain his mojo? The Tampa mayor was on a roll throughout his first-term, but he’s had several problems in the first six months since his re-election. La Gaceta’s Patrick Manteiga put in print the rumor that is starting to gain traction: “Is Buckhorn reconsidering a run for governor? Months ago, it looked like a sure thing. Now we hear there are second thoughts?” Whatever the scuttlebutt, Buckhorn has a powerful story to tell considering how well his city is doing.

How will Buckhorn vs. the Tampa City Council play out? For the first time in the Buckhorn era, the Tampa City Council is asserting itself in the battle over who can nominate members to the Civilian Review Board. Will the majority stay the course or wilt under the pressure?

Does the future of Major League Baseball really depend on the outcome of a St. Pete City Council race? If you believe the scaremongers at the Tampa Bay Times, whether the Tampa Bay Rays remain in the market will be decided by who wins the District 7 seat on City Council. If it’s Will Newton, the Rays will soon be in Montreal or Vegas. If it’s Lisa Wheeler-Brown, the Council will approve Mayor Rick Kriseman’s deal to let the ball club look beyond St. Pete for a new stadium. Of course it’s not that simple, but one thing is for sure: Newton vs. Wheeler-Brown is the most important City Council race since Ed Montanari ran against Bill Dudley. (If only Montanari had won!)

Will the Pat Frank vs. Kevin Beckner race tear apart Hillsborough Democrats? You all do realize that this high-profile fratricide is over the clerk of the court job, right?
Will a Republican with any name recognition challenge Jim Norman in the County Commission District 6 race? There are no second acts in American lives, right? Don’t tell that to the scandalized (not scandalous) Jim Norman, who could win his party’s nomination without too much of a fight. Will he beat Pat Kemp? That may be tough in a presidential election year, but so far, so good for Norman, who has shown enough leg while re-entering the public arena to not (yet) be run off.
What happens when Jeff Vinik or Bill Edwards don’t get what they want? These two modern-day Henry Flaglers — Vinik to Tampa, Edwards to St. Pete — have had a nice run the last five years, but what happens if and when things don’t go their way? What if Vinik can’t land a Fortune 500 company at his development project? What if MOSI turns him down? What if the city bureaucracy moves too slowly? As for Edwards, what if the Tampa Bay Times continues to bust his chops? What if people stop coming to see the Rowdies? What if the City of St. Pete starts casting a critical eye on his ambitions? It’s possible none of this will happen, but eventually the roulette wheel lands on double zero and everyone who bet on red or black loses.
What do we not know about what is not known about Tampa Bay politics? To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, there are unknown unknowns about every situation and a political battleground as volatile as Tampa Bay’s is filled with land mines. Be careful where you step!

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.