by Mitch Perry
"What do we need in Congress? Another multimillionaire lawyer? Or do we need somebody who has been a crusading investigative reporter?" Cohn asked CL and a couple of other reporters in reference to Ross, who has only held the seat since 2010, when he was elected in the GOP tsunami election to succeed Adam Putnam.
For more than a decade, the Polk County-centered district has been considered safe for the GOP. But last year's redistricting shifted the district into Hillsborough County and Tampa, where it now encompasses all of Temple Terrace and the entire USF campus area, in addition to Brandon, Plant City and Lakeland.
The last time the Democrats seriously competed for the seat was in 2000 after Charles Candady stepped down. But Putnam beat out Democrat Mike Stedham that year, and owned the seat for the next decade. Ross then defeated Democrat Lori Edwards by 7 percentage points in 2010.
"I wouldn't be in this if I didn't think I can win," Cohn told a somewhat skeptical press corps. "I know I can win."
Earlier this year, the National Journal ranked Ross the 15th most conservative member in Congress. Cohn said the district isn't nearly as conservative as its representative, citing the fact that the majority of it now resides in Hillsborough County, including New Tampa, where he lives with his wife and two kids.
A veteran broadcast journalist who said he got the political bug as a five year old when his father (who worked for CBS News) took him to Miami for the 1968 Republican National Convention, Cohn said he's thought about running for office his entire life — especially in the past year after being laid off by WFTS-Channel 28. At ABC-28 he broke a number of stories, including the blockbuster report in 2010 that former Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman's wife Mearline owned a house in Arkansas paid for by GOP power broker Ralph Hughes.
His three-year investigation into quality-control issues at Sikorsky Aircraft in Connecticut earned him a Peabody Award in 2007.
Cohn insisted he'll have the financial resources required to take on Ross. He said his background in local TV news gives him an advantage that many other first-time candidates can only wish for. He's also playing the populist card hard.
"People are going to remember me and what I did in this area in terms of exposing political corruption and scams and frauds, and they like the idea of it," he said.
In his seven-minute speech to an audience of friends and family, Cohn sounded like Harry Truman in bemoaning what he calls the "do-nothing Congress." He was particularly tough on Ross, assailing him for opposing the vote to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, and then later criticizing his "Relevancy Act" bill that would clamp down on NSA surveillance (read more about that here).
"I believe that either my opponent is shockingly ignorant about the threats that we face in terms of terrorism, or it's a cheap political stunt," said Cohn, before channeling Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie in breaking out the 9/11 card by saying that he worked in New York City on that awful day and still remembers it vividly. "Something we should all know is if we're going to protect this country from those types of attacks in the future, we necessarily have to realize that the government is going to be looking for those threats out there ... I trust this president and this administration."
That's a comment frequently uttered by Democrats since Edward Snowden leaked information about NSA surveillance to the Guardian earlier this summer. Yet the Washington Post recently reported that new documents have contradicted President Obama's previous statement that the NSA wasn't "actually abusing" its powers.
Cohn said that he trusts the Obama administration's "sensibilities," but admitted that he might not feel that way if someone else was in charge. He said that was something that could be discussed further, "but I don't think we have to use that as a political stunt. I don't want to do anything that incumbers the FBI, CIA or NSA from investigating terrorism."
However, on the most politically important question of the day — whether or not the U.S. government should bomb Syria in retaliation for their government's alleged use of chemical weapons — Cohn made common cause with Ross in saying that the U.S. government should have acted sooner regarding the civil war that the country has endured for the past two years. But while Ross told CL earlier this week that he isn't sure there is anything the U.S. can do at this hour, Cohn made the case that the use of chemical weapons is a game changer and "something has to be done."
Cohn said he contacted Democratic officials in both Hillsborough and Polk Counties late last year to inform them of his planned candidacy and they've been incredibly supportive since then.