There aren’t many policy disagreements between Harry Cohen and Jen McDonald, the two Democrats running in the District 1 Hillsborough County commission primary race next month. But Cohen’s 2016 vote for the controversial (and now defunct) “Tampa Bay Express” (TBX) proposal from the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) is definitely one of them.

What You Need To Know

  • Harry Cohen served eight years on the Hillsborough County Commission

  • Jen McDonald is a commercial insurance agent who runs her own business 

  • They disagree over the since rebranded TBX proposal to add express lanes on I-275 and I-4

“I think that was one of the worst things that you could support at the time,” McDonald said. She’s a Philadelphia native who has worked as a commercial insurance agent in Tampa for 17 years, including the last seven running her own business.

TBX was an ambitious, multi-billion dollar proposal from FDOT that most prominently included adding express toll lanes to both Interstate 275 and Interstate 4. The original proposal also called for FDOT to purchase homes for rights-of-way in Tampa Heights and Seminole Heights – a contentious idea that led to large grassroots opposition in those neighborhoods. A year later, FDOT rebranded the project to “Tampa Bay Next,” which still engenders opposition in some quarters.

Cohen defends his 2016 “yes” vote as a member of the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization. He says it was “complicated” because of the number of provisions that the plan included.

“So, while I shared a lot of the concerns of the residents of Seminole Heights and Tampa Heights about expressway encroachment, I was also very concerned about the bottleneck of Howard Franklin Bridge – four lanes coming into two when you’re entering Tampa from St. Petersburg. [It was] about access to the airport – about whether or not we would have a multimodal transportation center built one day in the area of the Westshore Interchange,” he said. 

“So there were an awful lot of moving pieces of that vote, and sometimes it’s not possible to separate things out.”

While Cohen is known for his intense, cerebral approach to public policy, McDonald is also well versed on issues like transportation and growth management – some of the big issues that the county commission has been dealing with for years.

She says she felt compelled to seriously consider running because of her frustrations with the commission when it came to putting a referendum on the ballot to fund transportation. That ultimately happened in November of 2018 when the group All for Transportation led an effort to get the public to approve a one-cent sales tax. However, the issue has been legally contested and is now in the hands of the Florida Supreme Court. 

With the potential that the state’s high court could strike down the referendum, some Democrats on the board back in April pushed to approve a similar proposal on this November’s ballot as a back-up plan. However, that didn’t come to fruition.

That vote happened right at the early stage of the enveloping COVID-19 crisis. Both candidates say that, with economic uncertainty that existed then, they understood the vote. But both said if they were on the board, they would have approved another referendum.

“I supported it when it was on the ballot. I support it now,” Cohen said. “I hope the Supreme Court upholds it. If I’m elected and it’s overturned, I absolutely will vote to put it back on the ballot.”

“I would have put it back on the ballot and put it up for an option for a vote by the citizens of Hillsborough County,” McDonald said.

They both are supportive of the recent moves the current Board of County Commissioners has made when it comes to raising mobility fees and impact fees for schools.

The complete economic fallout from COVID-19 is still unknown for Hillsborough County, but it won’t be good. Both Democrats say their skill sets make them the better candidate to serve beginning later this year.

“Going through these really challenging times, we need somebody with a risk management background and a risk management mindset,” McDonald said, referring to her experience underwriting property and casualty insurance. “When you’re going through an economic downturn, when you’re going through trying times like we’re going through right now with Covid-19, these are types of skills we need on the commission right now.”

Cohen ended eight years on the Tampa City Council a year ago with an unsuccessful bid to become Tampa’s next mayor. He continues to work as the general counsel in Hillsborough’s Clerk of the Courts office, where he has worked for 15 out of the last 16 years.

“We are looking at fiscal and public health challenges that are really unprecedented, and I do think that right now, experience matters,” he said on Wednesday. ”I think judgment matters, and the fact is that I have a long track record of trying to tackle some of the most difficult problems that our community has faced.”

Cohen also talks up his work on the council on storm water and flooding issues and says he’ll bring that knowledge with him in District 1, which includes South Tampa – a noted site over the years for storm water problems. 

“I think I come in with an experience that will let me hit the ground running,” he said, noting that the winner of the seat this fall will have to face reelection in 2022.

The District 1 seat, which also includes parts of northwest Hillsborough County, has been a swing seat over the past couple of decades. Republican Sandy Murman has held it for the past decade, but she is term-limited out this November (She’s hoping to stay on the board, however, and will be challenging Democrat Pat Kemp in the district-wide 6 seat in November). 

Republican Rose Ferlita held it from 2006-2010, and Democrat Kathy Castor held it from 2002-2006 (Castor announced that she was endorsing Cohen earlier this week). 

The Cohen-McDonald winner will face the winner of the GOP primary – either Tony Morejon or Scott Levinson – in November.