If you think Congress is unpopular these days, try running to be a part of it.
It’s the last Saturday morning in September, and I’m sitting in a small room in the back of Alan Cohn’s campaign headquarters on Fowler Avenue in Temple Terrace. The room, as well as the entire office and in fact the entire building (lots of beige), screams “nondescript.” I’ve been sitting here for nearly a half an hour watching him do what is required to run for office in America these days: dialing for dollars.
I don’t know about you, but the few times in my life I’ve ever had to ask somebody for money, it was awful. Try doing that with total strangers. For hours. Every day.
With the phone at his ear, Cohn glances at a sheet of paper handed to him by campaign aide Alexa Braham. She types in information on her laptop and then announces the next person Cohn needs to ask for.
Cohn is a Democrat running in Florida’s Congressional District 15, which encompasses Polk and eastern Hillsborough counties. He makes these calls most days for several hours a day.
Such is the drill for candidates all over the country. A campaign strategy memo prepared for Georgia Democratic Senate hopeful Michelle Nunn last year said that she should spend between 70-80 percent of her time raising money from January through September, and then “drop” to 50 percent until the election.
Relaxed, wearing a polo shirt and khakis, Cohn rarely if ever shows frustration, even when one call after another goes into voice mail.
Then he makes contact with a live human being.
“The reason why I’m calling is, I’m calling on folks who have been helpful to the Democrats running for office throughout the state — I’m a Peabody Award-winning journalist — and I’m running against one of the most conservative members of the Congress. And I’m tied in the polls and we’re in the homestretch of the campaign, so I’m calling on –”
After a pause, he then elaborates about where he’s running, tailoring the message to the South Floridian on the other end of the line. “I’m running against Dennis Ross, who likes to tell people he’s more conservative than his great friend Allan West,” and then he sighs. “All right. I thank you very much.”
Since entering the race last year, Cohn, a 52-year-old television reporter, has been making the rounds throughout Hillsborough and Polk in his effort to oust Ross, a three-term Republican incumbent who succeeded Adam Putnam in the then Polk-centered seat in 2010.
But with redistricting, the seat is almost equally cut in half between the two counties, which is how Cohn thinks the seat has become viable for a Democrat like him.
According to a poll conducted earlier this summer for him by the Democratic firm Anzalone Liszt Grove Research, the first-time candidate lags seven points behind Ross, 42-35, with 23 percent undecided. Team Cohn, however, is seizing on the data that says that after “reading balanced paragraphs on each candidate,” Cohn trails only by 2 percentage points and is therefore “statistically tied” with Ross. That may be a stretch, but Cohn and campaign manager Jon Colmenares utter the “we’re tied in the polls” line to everyone they encounter on the campaign trail.
But there are other numbers that may speak louder right now. Such as fundraising totals. As of the last filed report in early August, Ross had $449,416 cash on hand, Cohn $63,871.
As to where the district stands politically, CD15 went 53-46 for Mitt Romney in 2012. And it doesn’t seem that Democrats in D.C. think it’s all that viable.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) hasn’t been around. They’re currently putting resources into only three congressional races in Florida, in two of those cases trying to keep incumbents in power (Joe Garcia in Miami Beach and Patrick Murphy in Palm Beach County). The only challenger they’re supporting financially is Gwen Graham (daughter of Bob), who is running against Steve Southerland in the eastern half of the Panhandle.
On the campaign trail and on the phones, one of the first things Cohn does after meeting a voter is cite stories he broke in his career as a broadcast journalist. When speaking to folks in Hillsborough, that often means talking about County Commissioner Jim Norman and corruption.
To refresh that story for you, it was Cohn, not one of the local dailies, who reported in 2010 that Norman’s wife Mearline was receiving an undisclosed $500,000 from the late Ralph Hughes to buy a vacation home in Arkansas. (Hughes was a major Hillsborough County GOP activist and fundraiser.) The revelation led to two years of terrible headlines for Norman, who had served in Hillsborough politics for two decades. He ultimately withdrew his candidacy for re-election to the state Senate two years later, and hasn’t been heard from since.
Cohn began his career working as a desk assistant at CBS radio in New York when he was just 17, leading to working at TV stations in Boston and Springfield Massachusetts, as well as two stations in Connecticut, before landing in Miami, leading up to his gig at WFTS-28 in Tampa. He’s a New Tampa resident, and he’s passionate about everything he does.
And don’t tell him the odds are formidable.
“I’ve covered politics since I was 17 years old, and I studied this district before I got into this race,” he says calmly and directly. “The polling nine months later validated what I knew all along — that we have a really good chance here.“
He makes that claim based on the fact that his same poll shows that 60 percent of those surveyed said they have no clue who Dennis Ross is. That’s just part of his litany about his GOP opponent.
“Sixty percent of the voters can’t rate the job our opponent has done, because he hasn’t done anything!” Ross says with verve while speaking to about 20 Democrats at an East Hillsborough Democratic picnic at Paul Sanders Park in Valrico on a recent Saturday.
He alluded to Ross’s accusation that Cohn was waging “class warfare” by saying he was a middle-class member of the community representing a middle class that is “drowning as the cost of living continues to rise and incomes don’t.”
“And I started thinking,” Cohn recounts. “And I started getting angry because you know what? It’s not class warfare for our friends and neighbors who are having a tough time with their bills. It’s not class warfare to talk about how many of us are legitimately concerned about whether or not we’re going to have money to send our kids to college. Or whether we have enough to retire on. But it is class warfare to be totally oblivious to these facts, because you don’t give a damn. That is what this race is about. That. Is. Why. We. Will. Win.”
CL reached out to Congressman Ross, who with the stunning departure of Eric Cantor earlier this year is moving up in House leadership, recently becoming a senior deputy whip. His aide took down our questions but never returned them.
Cheering Cohn on in Brandon was Angelo Gavrian, who said he liked the fact that Cohn’s background is in investigative journalism. “He exposed [Jim] Norman. That’s a great thing.”
A Fish Hawk Trails resident who only wanted to be identified as “Jim” said he also appreciated the speech. “At least he’s getting people to meet him. Just short speeches like this make you feel very good, and we’re going to work very hard to get the people out to vote.”
But it was a little harder making the sale later in the day when Cohn and campaign manager Jon Colmenares ventured farther east, driving up to a parking lot just as vendors who had been hawking their wares at the Plant City Garden Festival were packing up for the day.
“I’m Alan Cohn, and I’m running for Congress,” he approached one woman, before segueing into his TV journalism background. “I think we need someone in Washington who will talk truth to power and hold people accountable. My wife and I are a working family, and I think too often that people who just work for a living and pay their bills need someone in Washington, and that’s why I’m running.”
Her attention piqued, Janice Miller responded. “Well, I’ll consider you. Which party are you?”
“I’m a Democrat,” Cohn responds, to uncomfortable silence.
“OK… That’s unfortunate,” she responded as Cohn, Colmenares and Miller’s husband Rodney broke out in laughter. “You were doing so well, too,” he playfully chides the candidate.
But Cohn doesn’t walk away. He further engages the couple, who reveal that they hail from Alabama and were Democrats until the 1980s. At the end of their exchange, Cohn smiles and says, “But I changed your mind today. At least in this race, right?”
Rodney Mills responds, “Yeah, we’ll certainly consider it now. We’ve never had anybody ask for it before.”
Cohn’s family is with him all the way on this new journey. His wife Patty and daughter Ann were with him last week when former Rhode Island Democratic Congressman Patrick Kennedy (son of Ted) made a campaign appearance at a Davis Islands supporter’s home. Concluding his remarks, Kennedy said simply, “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!”
Whether the people in CD 15 feel the same way will be known in less than a month.