Five weeks before the election in Congressional District 15, friends of Hillsborough/Polk Democratic candidate Alan Cohn held a fundraiser for him on Davis Islands Tuesday night, where the main attraction was former Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy, who praised Cohn for wanting to join an institution that isn't very popular these days.
"It is full of ridicule and disdain, and criticism and uncharted grief. All the time," the 47-year-old son of the late Ted Kennedy said. "But aren’t we lucky in this great democracy that we still have people who have so much to contribute and offer themselves as candidates in this very volatile political environment when most people would say, 'hey that’s great for someone else to do, but not me, I don’t want to drag myself and my family through all of this.'"
Kennedy's speech, where he occasionally shouted out certain words, was filled with self-deprecating humor, referring to how at the age of 21, he became the youngest member of the Rhode Island Legislature; was elected to Congress at 27; and then became the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "None of it had anything to do with my last name being Kennedy," he said to large laughs from local Democrats. "It was all my good looks and personality that brought me so far in life," while admitting that there was "nothing like driving down John F. Kennedy Blvd. to come to an event" in Tampa.
Cohn is facing Republican incumbent Dennis Ross in a race that hasn't received much attention locally. Ross, a longtime state legislator, was initially elected in 2010, succeeding Adam Putnam, and ran without opposition in 2012. Redistricting has made the seat almost equally divided between Polk and Eastern Hillsborough County, and Cohn, a New Tampa resident and longtime investigative broadcast journalist, announced his candidacy over a year ago.
"I relish the opportunity to compare what I've been able to do for this country, this state and this country to whom I'm running against," Cohn said in his speech, in which he highlighted some of his stories he's most proud of. "As I have tried to help veterans, some of them who were eating out of trashcans, prove to the government that they were in combat in Vietnam and Baghdad, my opponent was voting against giving veterans benefits during the government shutdown while he was collecting his own paycheck. So I relish this comparison."
Cohn is pro-choice, pro-comprehensive immigration reform, and supports not just a raise in the minimum wage, but a living wage (he didn't specify what that was, but activists say that would amount to at least $15 an hour for workers). Cohn says these aren't political positions, but values with which he has raised his children. "These are the values that are shared by the vast majority of people who live in Hillsborough and Polk Counties."
He acknowledged the difficulties Democrats face in this year's midterm, but he remains steadfast that he can beat out Ross. "Issue after issue in this district, the people are with us." He says that most people, especially in Hillsborough County, don't even know much about their representative. "He's not known for anything," he says, other than associating with the "No" crowd on Capitol Hill.
Cohn said that previously, Democrats and Republicans used to be able to work together to solve the major issues in the country, until now.
Patrick Kennedy picked up on that, saying that after his father, the "liberal lion" of the Senate, died in 2009, it was his Republican colleagues like John McCain, Orrin Hatch and Mike Enzi that offered some of the best tributes. He said his father always imparted upon him that "on issues of national importance, the way the process was run, each side would have their priorities, but at the end it would be the national priorities that would unify the two parties. We're missing that in Washington!"
It was recently announced that Kennedy will write about his bipolar disorder and drug addiction in a memoir to be published next year. In 2008, he was a leader in getting Congress to pass the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act , meant to reduce discrimination and improve access to care for people with mental illness and substance abuse disorders.
"If you ever aligned all the dollars we're currently spending on probation and parole and law enforcement and jails and prisons," Kennedy said in his parting remarks. "And you added that up and put that up against what it would cost to make those intensive case management services available for the severally persistent mentally ill, and what it would cost us to intervene early just like we would any other illness.
"We can do this. This is a great country, and we can make progress, but we need people who are thoughtful and willing to work. and you have that guy in your next Congressman, Alan Cohn!"
However, the voters will decide on that on November 4.