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Brian Willis starts early in his quest for a Hillsborough County Commission seat

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

There have been too many election cycles where Hillsborough Democrats appeared to be missing in action, with the party frantic to recruit candidates to at least provide a semblance of a challenge to a Republican.

But 2016 doesn’t appear to be one of those years.

The fact is that in the Obama-era at least, Democrats come out in big numbers in presidential election years, and with the party base seemingly in love with Hillary Clinton’s chances this early out, Hillsborough Dems have already announced their candidacies well in advance of next year’s election.

Take Brian Willis, for example. The Tampa attorney and transit advocate knows it’s still pretty early in the 2016 cycle, but never having ran for office before, he’s starting out early in his bid to become the Democratic nominee for County Commission in the open countywide District 6 race next year.

Last Wednesday night, Willis celebrated his 32nd birthday with dozens of friends and want-to-be friends at a fundraiser at Coppertail Brewing in Ybor City.

“The support has really been overwhelming from the folks coming out of the gate,” an energetic Willis said at the the event. “I think everybody’s excited. New leadership, some new ideas, and new energy.”

What stood out to anyone who has attended any political fundraiser in the Tampa Bay area in the past few years was the number of 20- and 30-somethings in the room. many of whom have never been that engaged in the political process, who identify with Willis, whose work with Connect Tampa Bay, a transit advocacy group, has provided him with a public profile for a number of years now.

Twenty-nine-year-old Cesar Hernandez has known Willis over the past year. The two met at the Tampa Bay chapter of the New Leaders Council, a progressive leaders institute. He says Willis and his contemporaries are going to inherit the challenges of today, so why wait to get involved in the electoral process?

“Why not come up with these innovative, tangible solutions today if they have a specific skill set and value to provide?” he asks.

Calling himself and his allies “The children of the Baby Boomers,” Willis agreed that there were “other people in this room who are going to be moving into positions of power.”

But some of Willis’ biggest boosters are decades older than he.

Try Ron Weaver, the land-use attorney and man about town when it comes to Hillsborough County politics. Weaver’s known Brian since he was a baby, being good friends with his father, Larry Willis, a real-estate broker in the county.

“Knowing his family and knowing Brian, I think he’ll be a breath of fresh air to the community,” said Weaver, who calls Willis “a brilliant advocate.”

“I know that he’ll work hard. I know that he’s honest,” Weaver said, adding that he has great respect for the current County Commission but says that Willis will supplement it with his “energy, his youth and his brightness.”

Former Tampa Bay Partnership CEO Stuart Rogel says it’s exciting to see the younger generation begin to step up in local politics. “He’s got some good ideas about what we’ve got to do with our economy, our transportation and infrastructure needs, and how our community can improve.”

Willis is by no means a sure-shot to win what might be an absolutely wild District 6 race next year. Hillsborough household Republicans like Jim Norman and Ronda Storms have been mentioned as potential candidates, while Democrat Pat Kemp has already filed to run. Kemp lost a closely contested fight against Al Higginbotham last November in the countywide District 7 race. That was despite the fact that, though not officially an incumbent, Higginbotham had been in the news as a county commissioner in District 4 for the past eight years.

Nash says he’s neutral in the race right now, saying he was at last week’s fundraiser to wish Willis a happy birthday. He says he’s going to support a “smart candidate” in the race.

“I’m interested in our community being smarter, being better,” he says, referring to a recent report about the Tampa Bay area having the 11th most congested traffic in the country. He also cited the news that the bio-tech firm Draper Labs is leaving the Bay area.

“It’s obvious that we could do lots to improve our community and by having smarter people in our elected office, whether it’s the Tampa City Council or Board of County Commissioners, certainly we can do better in Plant City and Temple terrace. I’m all for supporting the people who have smart ideas.”

Kemp surprised Willis and some of his allies in a recent interview with Florida Politics,  where she downplayed the significance of Connect Tampa Bay, the transit advocacy group that observers say helped spur the Hillsborough County Commission to ultimately restart talks about transit, leading to the creation of the Policy Leadership Group, which ultimately may advocate for a transit tax for 2016.

Willis’ work on transit issues prompted Apollo Beach Democrat Chris Radulich to make the trek to Ybor City. He said he didn’t know Willis personally, but came to the Ybor City craft brewery to express his concerns on a number of issues.

Kemp and Willis may not end up being the only Democrats in the primary election for District 6, which won’t take place for another 16 months. Actually, Marisol Blanco has also filed to run, while former County Commissioner and Tampa City Council member Thomas Scott and DNC Committeeman Alan Clendenin are also on record as considering a run for the seat.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at [email protected]

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