Tampa’s uninspiring mayoral race enters its final month with a clear leader, no spark from the seven suits seeking to succeed Bob Buckhorn, and a questionable process in reaching the average voter.
The Big Yawn began in earnest Nov. 7, the day following the 2018 midterms. After three months, the needle hasn’t moved in any of the private polls: former police chief Jane Castor leads the Titans of Tedium by a healthy margin.
The low caliber slate and lack of campaign intensity is shocking for a city with 385,000 residents, beset by mounting urban challenges, and a negative national image fomented by Buckhorn.
The neverending neighborhood and special interest forums tell the story: all but one held in South Tampa were not well attended. I witnessed the “Arts and Culture Forum,” which claimed to sell out with 500 confirmed reservations. If one includes the custodial help, security, and actors onstage, there may have been 300 in the Blake High school auditorium.
They could have squeezed into the band room.
The originals really were magnificent
Castor, the only female candidate, garners a solid 32-35 percent in most internal polls. Her closest pursuer with 15 percent is billionaire David Straz. The remaining five candidates hover at 10 percent and lower.
The irony: Castor and Straz are clearly the poorest speakers/debaters. The rest -- businessman Topher Morrison, former County Commissioner Ed Turanchik, attorney Dick Greco Jr., and City Councilmen Harry Cohen and Mike Suarez -- are far more articulate.
With the poorest communicators seemingly headed for the April 23 runoff, the role of the so-called media and the entire campaign process should be brought into sharper focus.
A second irony: Castor and Straz were both registered Republicans until they decided to vie for the “non-partisan” mayor’s seat. There’s more: Both connect to Donald Trump.
Castor’s partner, Ana Cruz, was named managing partner for the Tampa office of Ballard Partners, a prominent lobbying firm with close ties to the president.
After announcing he would run for mayor, Straz did a mea culpa by admitting he voted for Trump. “I made a mistake,” he said to a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 5-to-3 ratio.
One must wonder what information Straz procured about Trump in those three months to cause a one-eighty in his thinking. No one at the plethora of bland candidate forums has asked him that and you can bet none will. Those moderators, fellow candidates, and the moribund local media have been throwing more softballs than the local beer league.
It also has been rumored but not confirmed that Straz attended Trump’s private, $25,000-a-plate fundraiser at Tampa’s exclusive Centre Club in July 2016. That tariff equates to a tip to his pedicurist for someone of Straz’s means.
In fact, the most notable aspect of Straz’s campaign is his willingness to spread his wealth among influential individuals and groups for their comity if not outright endorsements. This includes the Hillsborough County Democratic Party.
Through January, Straz had raised $1,932,610, mostly self-funded. That’s more than double the combined opposition’s total. Castor follows with $293,846. Turanchik has raised $212,000 and the rest trail even more badly.
With no public record to run on, no articulation or apparent understanding of the issues, and an empty chair at a few of the forums, Straz and his circle are hoping an avalanche of media and an expected negative attack against Castor will override his abundant flaws.
From what I am hearing, the Straz camp’s “March surprise” ain’t all that much that the public doesn’t already know: Castor’s “biking while black” initiative received negative national publicity and a rebuke from the U.S. Department of Justice. She was slow to admit the program was faulty, or to apologize.
In addition, Castor allegedly has not met the requirements of a consulting contract she has with Miami-Dade. Tampanians could care less about Miami’s problem, if there even is one.
Castor would feast on Straz, the easiest opponent for her to beat in the runoff.
Then there’s the rest of the pack with termed-out councilmen Mike Suarez and Harry Cohen getting the chutzpah award. Their rhetoric, depending on the neighborhood group they are addressing, doesn’t match their eight-year record.
Ask the folks with road issues in New Tampa.
Greco’s father was a popular mayor decades ago, but he couldn’t make the runoff in a 2010 comeback stab. Junior’s name means nothing to new residents and many of the older ones passed on. No chance.
Morrison and Turanchik have issued white papers on important issues such as transit and housing. Both wear the mantle of “visionary,” with Morrison appealing to younger voters and Turanchik relying on the establishment.
Turanchik made the rookie mistake of attacking Castor instead of Straz, who holds the second runoff spot. If he is in it to win it, Turanchik embraced a terrible strategy.
The optics of six men ganging up on Castor will only boost her in the polls. Straz hasn’t done much but spend his millions and sits in second place. The other five need to set their sights on him in the primary.
The biggest disappointment of the campaign was the withdrawal of LaVaughn King, who couldn’t gain enough signatures to qualify. King, who participated in forums until the final qualifying day, provided fresh, original ideas. His answers, and those of Topher Morrison, stood in stark contrast to the canned answers from the career politicians on the panel.
The biggest question for any Tampanian who witnessed any of the candidate get-togethers: Which one is Dopey and which one is Doc?
Jim Bleyer, a former reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and Tampa Tribune, writes the Tampa Bay Beat blog.