Mary Mulhern recently converted her grown daughter’s former bedroom into an art studio. She’d like to spend some time there, but she hasn’t yet; she keeps getting roped back into politics.
“It’s going to be hard for me to totally remove myself,” she said.
Last month, as the outspoken progressive’s eight years on the Tampa City Council drew to a close due to term limits, she wanted to help other progressives win council seats. So she campaigned. One of those candidates, Guido Maniscalco, did win.
Now, she says, it’s time to take it easy.
“I’ll tell you in a couple weeks what it’s like to be done,” she said. “But I do know that it’s going to be hard for me to turn it off.”
The fourth of seven children, Mulhern grew up in a “solidly Democratic” household. Her father was a city councilman for the Detroit suburb where she grew up. Her brother Daniel is married to former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm.
“We were all raised on politics,” she said.
Her other passion? Art.
She attended art school in Michigan, and went to Chicago with friends after college, eventually landing an arts admin job at the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago. She oversaw the transfer of priceless works between museums, which at times made her anxious.
“I still have nightmares about it,” she said.
She was returning from a trip escorting a painting to Madrid when she met future husband Cam Dilley. The two sat next to each other on a flight from Madrid to Atlanta, where both had connecting flights. The two carried on a long-distance relationship for a year before she moved to Tampa with her daughter, whom Mulhern had been raising as a single mother.
Mulhern became a freelance art writer, including a stint in 2005 as the visual art critic for CL (when it was still the Weekly Planet), and did some consulting work. She curated an I Love Lucy exhibit in Orlando and studied to be a graphic designer.
But politics was always in her blood. In 2003, she’d gotten involved with Democratic efforts to defeat George W. Bush. Working as a field organizer, she discovered how suited she’d be for a larger role.
“I realized I love public speaking, I was really good at strategy and I was really good with numbers,” she said. “I had all the tools I needed.”
She ran for Hillsborough County Commission in 2006 and lost, but in 2007 she won her council seat.
Mulhern quickly became known for vocal stances on issues like environment, homelessness and Cuba, even when alone in her position.
“I think she’s a very fabulous advocate for her community and a steadfast one,” said Tampa Councilwoman Yvonne “Yolie” Capin, who has been on Council since 2010. “She’s not afraid to step forward. I think that’s commendable. I really do.”
Capin points to the vote on security cameras that preceded the 2012 Republican National Convention. The rest of the council supported them. Mulhern did not.
“She felt so strongly about it she’d just as soon be the only ‘no’ vote,” Capin said.
among the first on the council to advocate reaching out to Cuba. She visited the country in 2009, the first to do so, under the advisement of activist Al Fox.
“She was one of the first people on City Council to come out very forcefully on that issue,” said political consultant Victor DiMaio,
who worked on her first campaign.*
Before her second Cuba trip in 2011 she she tried to get her colleagues on the council to agree to send a friendly “ceremonial” letter to the Cuban National Assembly, but nobody would second her motion. Recently, the council passed a resolution supporting opening a Cuban consulate in Tampa.
“I took the brave step, now everybody got on the bandwagon,” Mulhern said. “I had the guts and I took the heat.”
Her outspokenness made it tough to work with the two mayors she served with, Pam Iorio and Bob Buckhorn. She said she has few regrets over her two terms, but does lament not having had a better rapport with Iorio.
“I wish that I could have worked more with her than butting heads,” Mulhern said. “But the reality is… we were like polar opposites.”
As for Buckhorn, she said, she doesn’t regret how acrimonious their relationship became. The two disagreed on Cuba, militarization efforts ahead of the RNC, and policies on homelessness and poverty. She remembers a confrontation following a contentious vote on a panhandling ban in 2011, which she opposed. After the vote, she said, Buckhorn confronted her in the parking lot as she was loading document files into her back seat, shouting at her for defying him as her aide stood nearby.
“He just let me have it,” Mulhern said. “At the same time I was stunned… I had ever been treated that way by anyone. Not by a boss, not by a parent, not by a teacher, not by anyone.”
So she shouted back.
“What did he think was going to happen?” she said. “He’s not the only Irish person. I just gave it right back to him.”
Buckhorn’s office said she is playing “he said, she said.”
“The mayor has no recollection of anything like that happening,” Ali Glisson, a spokeswoman for the mayor, wrote in an email. “She has never taken an opportunity to speak to him personally about it, and seems to prefer, instead, to share it to the media years after the fact.”
Mulhern said she’s not afraid of any political consequences that might come from openly criticizing a popular mayor and likely candidate for governor. Politicos like Chris Ingram speculate Mulhern may herself run for mayor or county commission in the near future.
But it’s way too early to tell if she even wants to run again, she says. For now, she wants to decompress. And if she does jump back into the fray, she’s not going to change.
“In my reelection in 2011, the papers all endorsed me, but one of them said, ‘Although I was not a polished politician,’ something like that,” she said. “I said, ‘Thank you very much.’ That’s what people want. They don’t want to hear bullshit.”
*DeMaio didn't actually work on Mulhern's campaign, but has worked on other council campaigns and is a close observer of city politics.