POLK COUNTY, Fla. — Three Democrats vying to be the nominee in Florida’s 15th Congressional District engaged in a candidate forum on Wednesday night.

The Polk/eastern Hillsborough/Lake county-area district has been solidly red for a generation, but Democrats think that several factors could lead to an upset victory later this year.

What You Need To Know

  • Incumbent Ross Spano under investigation, facing primary challenge

  • Forum hosted by HIllsborough County LGBTA Democratic Caucus

  • Primary election slated for August 18

Riverview state House Democrat and U.S. Navy veteran Adam Hattersley, former TV news reporter and anchorman Alan Cohn, and U.S. Marine veteran and political newcomer Jesse Philippe are vying to win the nomination in August and then go on to face Ross Spano in November – if the embattled GOP incumbent survives his own primary.

If any congressional Republican incumbent is considered vulnerable this year, it’s Spano, who is currently being investigated by the U.S. Dept. of Justice for alleged campaign finance violations.

That’s why the Democratic Campaign Congressional Committee has listed the race as one of their top ten in country that they’re hoping to flip, and why the Dover Republican is facing his own primary challenge this summer from Lakeland City Commissioner Scott Franklin.

Candidates take shots at one another

Wednesday night’s electronic forum was hosted by the Hillsborough County Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Allies (LGBTA) Democratic Caucus, and many of the questions that the candidates fielded dealt with issues concerning the LGBTQ community.

But towards the end of the hour-long virtual event, Cohn took aim at Hattersley’s ambitions in running for congress while still serving in his first term as a state representative in Tallahassee.

“That’s not leadership,” Cohn declared. “That’s not leadership by any stretch of every imagination, because this is not just about getting the job. It’s about getting the job done.”

The format of the forum did not allow Hattersley to immediately interject, but the Riverview Democrat ultimately did respond, making reference to Cohn’s frequent assertions during the forum of a prestigious journalism award he won in 2007 for his report that defective parts were being installed on Blackhawk military helicopters.

“I’m glad that people were able to get some reports about bad Blackhawk helicopter parts, but I was out there riding those Black Hawks,” Hattersley said. “You know, people say what they’re going to do, but really, the only way that you can tell is by looking back at their past and their history and see what they’ve done to give you an indicator what they will actually do.”

Comparing resumes

Hattersley won an upset victory in taking the State House District 59 seat in 2018 that Spano left after serving six years to run for Congress. He makes the case that as the only Democrat to win in that part of Hillsborough County in decades, he is primed to be the man who will take down Spano in November.

“You know, my life hasn’t been cushy behind a desk. It’s been in service,” he added regarding his military and lawmaking experience, which includes a tour in Iraq.

Cohn touted his career as an aggressive investigative journalist as the right stuff to go after Spano in the general election.

“When you think about who is the best person to prosecute the case against Ross Spano, it is someone like me who has been going after corrupt politicians for over 30 years,” he affirmed.

The third and much less-known Democrat in the race is Jesse Philippe, a Marine veteran who also served a tour in Iraq before moving on to stints with the Florida Department of Revenue and then the Department of Children and Families.  

Philippe didn’t seem impressed with his two higher-profile opponents when he gave his closing statement.

“This whole debate you heard a lot of stories,” he said. “You heard a lot of name dropping. But every single question that I was presented today, I provided a solution.”

Philippe also reminded viewers at one point that he was also the only candidate with a law degree.

Candidates stances on health care

There wasn’t much daylight between the three candidates on the public policy issues discussed.

On health care, Cohn said that the Affordable Care Act “does have to be fixed,” and said if elected he would specifically work on lowering the high deductibles that patients currently have to account for.

Hattersley said he supported universal health care coverage, and appeared to endorse a version of Medicare for all who want it.

“We can make health insurance affordable, and anyone who can’t afford it should be enrolled in Medicare cost free,” he said.

Philippe had the most novel concept. He’s for a public option that would include attaching a “civilian component” right next to a Veterans Administration hospital that would provide “low-cost” medical care for middle and lower-income families.

Along with the potential vulnerabilities of the incumbent, another reason why Democrats are more optimistic than usual in terms of their chances is that the seat used to be centered in conservative Polk County and now has a plurality of voters from eastern Hillsborough County. But President Trump did win the seat over Hillary Clinton by double-digits in 2016.

The primary election takes place on August 18.