Three for all in District 58

A special Democratic primary in Tampa turns tense over questions of race and residency.

click to enlarge "IT'S MY CORE": Janet Cruz works the crowd at the West Tampa Sandwich Shop. - Rebecca Wainright
Rebecca Wainright
"IT'S MY CORE": Janet Cruz works the crowd at the West Tampa Sandwich Shop.

Within hours of the resignation last month of Hillsborough County Democratic Representative Mike Scionti, South Tampa Democratic activist and fundraiser Janet Cruz-Rifkin announced her campaign to succeed him. She released a statement announcing not only that she was running for Scionti's District 58 seat, but that a list of high-powered Tampa Democrats like Jim Davis, Kathy Castor and Alex Sink were endorsing her campaign. The Democratic primary is Tuesday, Jan. 26.

With the seat already heavily Democratic, Cruz-Rifkin (who's running as Janet Cruz in the election) was soon jetting up to Tallahassee to fundraise and, critics joke, begin measuring the drapes.

But a funny thing happened on the way to her coronation: Hillsborough County Democratic Party Chair Pat Kemp declared two weeks later that the district ought to be represented by someone who actually lives in it, and that person was Pat Kemp. And prior to Kemp's announcement, 33-year-old attorney Gil Sanchez said he too would like to try for the seat, though he, like Cruz, resides outside the district. (He lives in Channelside.)

(State election law allows legislative candidates to run for office without living in a district, but if elected, they then must move there. Cruz has since begun renting in District 58.)

But if Pat Kemp was the only indigenous candidate, she soon came under fire from some of her opponent's supporters, who asked, somewhat stunningly, whether she was the right ethnicity.

That's because District 58 is considered by some to be a "Hispanic seat," traditionally represented by a candidate with a Latin background. The boundaries expanded nearly a decade ago into Seminole Heights in Tampa, as well as parts of Town N' Country and Egypt Lake in northwest Hillsborough, but its heart has always been West Tampa.

And that's what led La Gaceta Editor and Publisher Patrick Manteiga to write in his weekly column that Kemp "wants to wrestle this district away from Latins," a broadside that has angered and divided the local Democratic party.

In an interview with CL, Manteiga insisted that his stance wasn't controversial. If Kemp were to run against State Rep. Betty Reed, an African-American, "I'm sure the black caucus would scream about it... If we had a Hispanic DEC Chair run against Kevin Beckner, gays would scream about it...this is a safe seat, a safe Hispanic seat."

Democratic political consultant Victor DiMaio, who also supports Cruz, sounded personally aggrieved, asserting that Kemp should have "known better" than to run in District 58.

Kemp campaign advisor and former state legislator Sara Romeo is ashamed such a debate is even taking place. "What are the Hispanic issues that are so involved and so Latin in nature that nobody else can understand?" she asks rhetorically. Romeo adds that the district is not a Latin stronghold, but a "Democratic one."

Kemp has displayed a deep knowledge of pubic policy issues in recent candidate forums. With the ultimate victor needing to take office shortly after the general election on Febuary 23, her supporters say nobody else is better prepared.

She speaks rapidly on the stump, discussing her background, which includes working with Romeo in the legislature from 2000-2002 and with former County Commissioner Kathy Castor as a neighborhood liaison. She's an attorney who's worked in journalism, having previously served as news director at WUSF-FM, and she's married to Randy Wynne, program director of WMNF-FM. [Full disclosure: I worked for Wynne during my tenure at WMNF.] Well-known and respected in Seminole Heights, she's probably the favorite to win in that district's precincts. She's also more progressive than the other candidates (which may not be an advantage in some working-class parts of the district).

Less wonkish is newcomer Gil Sanchez. Born in West Virginia to Colombian parents, the up-and-coming attorney was a co-creator of the group HYPE, a monthly meeting of Latin professionals in Tampa that began a few years ago. In interviews and in public forums, he consistently discusses his belief in what he calls his "triangle of prosperity," which for him is economic development, education, and safety and security. He did his campaign no favors by going ahead with a two-week honeymoon to Southeast Asia after deciding to enter the race.

Cruz is well ahead of her opponents in fund-raising. As of late last week, she reported raising over $31,000 in the fast-paced contest, nearly 10 times as much as Kemp or Sanchez has raised from contributors (Kemp contributed $10,000 of her own money to her campaign).

Cruz is already well-known for her skill at fund-raising; she has held major events for Democrats at her Sunset Park waterfront home, where she lives with her husband, physician Steve Rifkin. Her daughter Ana is a respected Democratic Party consultant whose current clients include Senate hopeful Kendrick Meek.

Still, Cruz insists she is still very much Janet from the 'hood.

"District 58 is a culture, it's an ethnicity, it's the people that I serve and work with," she said at her home the night she declared her candidacy (during a fundraiser for Democratic State Senator Dave Aronberg). "When I walked neighborhoods for Lawton Chiles many years ago, I walked with Mike Scionti Sr. [a former Hillsborough County party chair]. It was the streets of West Tampa that we walked. I've never been far from West Tampa. It's my core."

It certainly seemed that way last Friday, as she drank cafe con leche and munched on Cuban bread at the West Tampa Sandwich shop, visiting with regulars who have known her for decades.

Cruz describes herself as a moderate Democrat; Sanchez says he's a pro-business Democrat, while Kemp is proud to call herself a progressive.

Critics say Cruz has not been averse to playing the ethnic card. That name change, for instance: clipping off her husband's surname and returning to that of her first husband (her maiden name is Gonzalez). She denies she made the change to curry favor with Hispanic voters.

Sanchez supporters have not shied away from the Hispanic question. Advisor Evelyn Perez-Verdia worked as an intern in Bob Henriquez' district office several years ago. She says 75 percent of constituents who visited that office spoke only Spanish.

Perez-Verdia sent out an e-mail to supporters saying, "it's not just about having the last name, my friends, it is about being able to communicate with your district — Spanish-speaking or not."

There have also been rumblings that some "Hispanic first" voters might be inclined to vote for Republican Jackie Rojas-Quinones if Kemp is victorious. Rojas-Quinones has roots in the West Tampa community as an accountant and Latin Chamber of Commerce president (and is running against attorney Hunter Chamberlin in the GOP primary scheduled next week).

The flurry of activity ends next Tuesday, Election Day. But the tensions inside the Hillsborough County Party may well continue to reverberate.

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