In 2002, when Ken Hagan first entered politics, north Hillsborough County, including New Tampa, was a Republican stronghold.
But the times, they have-a-changed.
Nowadays, not only is Hillsborough County blue, with 50,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, but New Tampa also has followed suit.
But, that’s not all. In addition to New Tampa’s already blue-ish tint, Hagan was dealt a blow when District 2 was redrawn earlier this year, moving out some of the more reliable Republican voters. As a result, Hagan is feeling the pinch as the General Election on Tuesday, November 8, draws nearer (with early voting running from October 24-November 6, 7 a.m.-7 p.m.).
His campaign to hold onto his District 2 seat, which represents most of the New Tampa area he used to live in, has been the most difficult of his career.
“The district has shifted,” Hagan says. “But, we’re still confident we will win.”
Hagan, who grew up in Carrollwood but lived in New Tampa for more than a decade, won his first election for the District 2 seat in 2002 by more than 17,000 votes. In 2004, he defended that seat with a victory margin of nearly 30,000.
In 2010, he ran for the countywide District 5 seat, and defeated Linda Saul-Sena by 32,000 votes.
A prolific fund raiser who quickly became one of Tampa Bay’s most powerful politicians, Hagan ran for the District 2 seat again in 2018 and was expected to win easily.
However, he was nearly washed out in a blue wave. Political neophyte Angela Birdsong was outspent $500,000-$30,000 but only lost by 6,000 votes, or 52%-48%.
It was shocking, and so was this: Hagan only won two New Tampa precincts, and Birdsong received 3,000 more votes overall from New Tampa residents.
Hagan, however, continued to push for some big ticket items in New Tampa. The New Tampa Performing Arts Center held its ribbon cutting last week, and Hagan has been working on that project for two decades.
Branchton Park off Morris Bridge Rd. is getting a massive upgrade, and the county broke ground on that project last month. And, Hagan is pushing forward with plans to build New Tampa’s first indoor recreation facility in the Cross Creek area, hoping to break ground early next year.
Hagan has a beefed-up resume to show New Tampa voters.
And, he has raised $397,560 – far more than any other county commissioner running this election cycle — while Birdsong has raised only $65,590. Hagan also had outspent Birdsong through Oct. 7 by a $56,000-37,000 margin.
But will it be enough?
New district maps may provide Birdsong with the last little push she needs to knock Hagan off the County Commission, which is controlled by Democrats.
The map proposed by Commissioner Pat Kemp — which despite objections by commissioners Hagan, Republican Stacy White and Democrat Gwen Myers — passed by a 4-3 vote earlier this year and removed GOP-voting areas in Seffner, Valrico and Thonotosassa from District 2, while adding a large swath of the more Democratic-leaning University of South Florida area.
Hagan says the whole process was “offensive” and called it “the most partisan political exercise I’ve gone through.”
Birdsong, 61, acknowledges that the new maps helped her make the decision to run again, with the district shifting from +2 percentage points for Republican voters to +7 percentage points for registered Democrats.
“It’s going to be a footrace,” she says. “But, we like our chances. It looks very good for us.”
An insurance agent and mother of one, Birdsong said she has campaigned on many of the same issues she did in 2018, namely transportation, workforce training and affordable housing.
She has also made a concerted effort to reach out to minority groups that she feels are growing in northern Hillsborough County but are unrepresented in the county.
She has met with Caribbean-Hispanic, Muslim and LGBTQ groups, and continues to try and draw as many different underrepresented voters into her campaign as possible.
“I really would like to do more to help minority businesses do business with Hillsborough County,” Birdsong says. “I really want to work with minority young people entering high-paying union jobs. You know who can pay the rent? People with high-paying jobs.”
Birdsong has lobbed familiar charges at Hagan — that he is beholden to developers, for one — and says it’s time for a change. Hagan has served as a county commissioner for 20 years, and Birdsong says she will bring a fresh perspective to the area’s changing landscape and needs.
“He’s a career politician,” Birdsong says. “It’s time for him to retire.”
Hagan, however, says his experience has yielded a number of improvements in his district, especially for New Tampa. A longtime advocate and key player in the widening of Bruce B. Downs Blvd., Hagan always has been active in our area.
While larger issues involving inflation, immigration and abortion dominate the national landscape and make separating Democrats and Republicans easy, the effect county commissioners can have on those issues is minimal. That’s why Hagan says blue wave or red wave, local voters should focus on results.
“The reality is, with local government, people shouldn’t look as hard at partisanship,” Hagan says. “The governor, President, Congress, I get it. But locally, it should be, man, who is going to deliver the goods? And I’ve done that.”