HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. -- One of the hottest local races in Hillsborough County politics is the Democratic primary race for the County Commission District 3 seat, where chairman Les Miller is stepping down after a 10-year stint on the board.  

What You Need To Know

  • Hillsborough's first District 3 forum held Thursday night

  • Only 2 or 6 candidates participated -- Sky White and Rick Fernandez

  • More political news

Yet in the first campaign forum of the cycle, only two of the six candidates in the race bothered to show up. 

Perhaps the message was that despite the gradual reopening of the economy following lockdowns for the past two months because of COVID-19, not everyone is still comfortable about making public appearances.

This wasn’t a virtual event, as has been the case everywhere in politics since the country locked down to deal with the novel coronavirus more than two months ago. Instead, the candidates were asked to physically show up to a small East Tampa nightclub, where tables for each of them were several feet set apart, with only a small, select group invited to attend as the event was streamed on Facebook Live.

The two candidates who did appear were Sky White, the 36-year-old registered nurse and community activist who ran two years ago for a countywide seat, and Tampa Heights neighborhood activist and attorney Rick Fernandez.

Democrats Gwen Myers, Thomas Scott, and Frank Reddick were not in attendance. Nor was the lone Republican in the race, Maura Cruz Lanz.  

Myers told Spectrum Bay News 9 later Thursday night that the forum conflicted with a prior campaign commitment.  

“This is the first forum we’ve had and we’re 90 days out from the election,” White said after the debate. “People want to hear what we’re about. What we plan on doing. What’s our vision?”

“They made a statement to the community,” Fernandez said afterward, refusing to say what that statement was. “I’m just glad Sky was here. I think a service was done by the folks who put this together.”

The event was organized by Kella McCaskill, who moderated the 90-minute plus forum. 

The district is centered in East Tampa, extends north to the USF area and south to Progress Village, and has been held by an African American for decades. There has been concerns discussed in the community about how the emergence of a white candidate -- Fernandez -- could potentially dilute the votes of the four African Americans in the crowded five-person Democratic field.

But that sensitive issue never surfaced in the forum, which was concentrated on what White and Fernandez would do for the community if they won the seat this fall. Affordable housing, transportation, and bringing economic opportunities were the most frequently discussed subjects.

White is a millennial and would definitely bring a younger dimension to a board that hasn’t had anyone relatively youthful serving on it for a long time. 

Fernandez was among the legion of activists from Tampa Heights and Seminole Heights who railed against the Florida Dept. of Transportation’s “Tampa Bay Express” project five years ago and said on Thursday that strong vocal opposition “saved large swaths of Tampa Heights and Ybor City."

“If we hadn’t shown up. If we hadn’t been heard, that project would be on its way to conclusion,” he said at one point.

White said her vision of District 3 is that it’s been “generationally oppressed” and “historically ignored” while “a lot of the small parts around the neighborhood have thrived.”

There will undoubtedly be other public forums as the August 18 Democratic primary draws closer – hopefully with all of the candidates in attendance. With the district leaning heavily Democratic, the winner of that primary will be the overwhelming favorite to defeat Maura Cruz Lanz in the general in November.