TAMPA — Alan Cohn has a better-known name and face than a typical political newcomer, thanks to three years as a local television investigative reporter whose career has included significant scoops exposing public corruption.
His long TV journalism career gave him experience with politics and public issues. He says it also showed his commitment to public service.
But all that won’t elevate him from his position as a decided underdog as he moves from television into politics, challenging incumbent U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross of Lakeland for a congressional seat.
Still, the race will provide about a quarter of a million voters in eastern Hillsborough County with something most voters in the county won’t have: a choice in a congressional election. Reps. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, and Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, who together represent more than half the county’s voters, will both be re-elected without opposition.
A House seat is an ambitious goal for any political newcomer, and Cohn, a Democrat, faces a popular Republican incumbent in a conservative district that votes heavily Republican.
Ross was elected to the House seat in 2010, easily defeating county Elections Supervisor Lori Edwards after an eight-year career in the state House and a term as Polk County Republican Party chairman. In 2012, he was re-elected with no opposition.
As an incumbent, he’ll have a big financial advantage.
As of the most recent financial reporting date, the end of March, Ross had raised $717,945 to Cohn’s $159,965, and had $213,385 in the bank to Cohn’s $70,300.
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Cohn doesn’t concede that he’s an underdog, saying more voters of the district agree with his positions than with Ross’ on key issues including immigration and a minimum wage increase.
“I’m more in line with middle-class people who are trying to pay for college and save for retirement,” he said in an interview.
“What our polling indicates is that when voters learn about my bio in a fair way and Dennis Ross’ bio as written by his own campaign, it is a statistical tie.”
In his campaign, Cohn talks about his “30-year history of speaking truth to power, exposing political corruption and fraud and standing up for our veterans.”
“What voters like is that I’m not a career politician or a millionaire — they want to send someone to Washington who is more like themselves and a problem-solver.”
Ross, clearly confident of a win, wasn’t available for an interview for this story.
In an email, campaign spokesman Anthony Foti said, “Congressman Ross has always taken every opponent seriously. There will be plenty of time to talk politics and campaigning in the fall. Right now, he is focused on working hard for the people of the 15th Congressional District in Washington.”
The 15th District has only a small plurality of Republican registered voters, 38.1 percent to 37.7 percent Democrats, but it votes more Republican than those figures indicate.
In 2012, while President Barack Obama narrowly won Florida, he lost in the district by a significant margin, 46 percent to Mitt Romney’s 53 percent — and that was in a presidential election, when the Democratic turnout was higher than it typically is in non-presidential years like this one.
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Cohn could have one advantage: Since Ross was first elected, redistricting put 60 percent of the district into Hillsborough County, where Cohn, a New Tampa resident, is best known.
It now covers the eastern half of the county, while the rest consists of western Polk County, Ross’ home turf. He’s a Lakeland native.
According to a resume he supplied, Cohn has been a television reporter since 1980 at stations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Miami and, from 2009 to 2012, at WFTS, Channel 28, the local ABC affiliate.
He won a prestigious Peabody Award for exposing use of substandard parts by a Sikorsky helicopter plant in Stratford, Connecticut, that made military helicopters, and in Tampa, he broke the story about a wealthy political donor who bought a $500,000 vacation home in Arkansas for the wife of former state Sen. and County Commissioner Jim Norman.
Cohn’s platform is typical for a mainstream Democrat. Among other things, he advocates:
♦ Raising the minimum wage.
♦ “Comprehensive immigration reform,” although his website avoids mentioning the most controversial part of that movement — a path to earned citizenship for illegal immigrants now in the United States, which tea party-style Republicans call “amnesty.”
♦ Marriage rights for same-sex couples.
Cohn said he’s pro-choice — “I support a woman’s right to control her own health care decisions, no ifs, ands or buts” — and supports measures to combat climate change and “get carbon emissions under control.”
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Ross, on the other hand, has a political philosophy more in line with tea party-style Republicans.
He has a 100 percent rating from National Right to Life, a 0 percent rating from the national gay rights group Human Rights Campaign, and opposes comprehensive immigration reform.
He has said he doesn’t accept “all the theories that are out there” that human activity is the cause of climate change. He voted in favor of the 2012 “Stop the War on Coal Act” that would prohibit federal regulations to limit greenhouse gases or coal use and has several 0 or single-digit ratings from environmental groups.
In April, he said at a town hall meeting in Tampa that a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 “is not right — it does more harm to our economy” and “would abrogate our God-given rights to excel the way we’re meant to excel.”
Ross, a lawyer who has worked for the large Holland & Knight law firm and for Disney World, has long been active in the Republican Party in Polk County.
He won a state House seat in 2000 and served eight years before winning election to Congress.
Republican political consultant Mark Proctor, who isn’t working for Ross, said the congressman “is out there doing all the right things” for re-election, “holding events, getting out in public.”
Ross has held many town hall events around the district, in which he takes questions from crowds.
“The time a congressman is most vulnerable is his first re-election,” Proctor said. The 2012 election, he said, “would have been the time to try to take him out.”
Democratic consultant Ana Cruz, who’s not working for Cohn, said Cohn’s background and qualifications make him “an excellent candidate” but was doubtful about his chances.
“He’s working hard, he’s contacting all the right people, he’s diligent about reaching out to likely supporters,” Cruz said, “but that district is very tough.”