Creative Loafing endorses Ed Turanchik for mayor of Tampa

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Ed Turanchik gets slammed sometimes for dreaming too big. His resume is marked by wide-ranging efforts to make change happen — efforts that may not have always panned out, but that always reflected a vision for a better city.

He tried to address the need for affordable housing with the Civitas project in 2004; as a county commissioner in the ’90s, he helped negotiate an end to the regional water wars (leading to the creation of Tampa Bay Water); he spearheaded the unsuccessful drive to get the 2012 Olympics to Tampa; and his career-long interest in transit most recently found him leading an advocacy group that helped score federal funding for Tampa-to-Orlando high-speed rail (a dream trashed by Gov. Scott's rejection of those funds on Wednesday).

When he’s asked to respond to charges that he’s more about dreams than reality, he counters, “We’re going to be in bad shape if the visionaries get trashed for trying.”

But here’s the thing. Talk to him about what he plans to do as mayor, and you’re struck by how practical his proposals are. They’re not pie-in-the-sky visions, but doable reforms grounded in real-world conditions — conditions he knows from having been out of politics since leaving the Commission in 1998. His current endeavor — the InTown Homes urban redevelopment project, through which he built or renovated 50 bungalows in West Tampa — has given him a visceral lesson in the challenges that confront business owners in the current climate.

In all, Ed Turanchik represents a combination of qualities unique among the five highly qualified candidates running for mayor of Tampa.

A big-picture thinker who served in elected office and exercised leadership across county boundaries, he also has first-hand experience with the block-by-block realities of doing business in Tampa. He’s a progressive and a pragmatist.

He sees the excess stock of abandoned houses on the market and envisions a rehab-to-ownership model that would take advantage of a little-known FHA program and provide needed construction jobs. He looks at the tangle of regulatory requirements that stand in the way of small business startups, and proposes a modest city investment in shared amenities for older urban neighborhoods — parking and storm water solutions, green space — that could be leased to businesses for far less money than they’d have to spend if meeting these requirements independently.

He sees the savings and job opportunities that can arise from the PACE energy efficiency program (already approved by the Florida legislature) and pledges to bring it to Tampa. He talks about encouraging the arts, not through big initiatives, but by planting seeds in the form of micro-grants that will foster projects already underway.

Even some of those pie-in-the-sky ideas of his — like his dream of a regional rail system, the vision that got him his “Choo Choo Turanchik” nickname — now seem anything but far-fetched. Again, he points to available resources, such as existing CSX tracks, as the linchpin of his plans.

Through all this, he is as clear about what government can’t do as what it can. At Creative Loafing’s mayoral debate, his answers were at times bracingly direct. To the question “What can Tampa do for the homeless right now?” his reply was “Not a lot.” He went on to explain that the responsibility for social welfare in Hillsborough County lies with the Hillsborough County Commission, and if Tampa takes on problems that aren’t officially within its purview, or its budget, the city could succumb to “mission creep.”

He was equally blunt when it came to a discussion of what cuts could be made if necessary in the police and fire budgets. “We’re going to have to reduce compensation,” as opposed to services, he said, an answer that’s not likely to win him any votes from police officers or firefighters.

“I’m not used to politicians like that,” said one member of CL’s endorsement committee. She wasn’t accustomed to hearing a candidate whose future scenarios included candid admissions of what isn’t possible. She appreciated the honesty.

But others among us wondered if that kind of candor would work for Turanchik in the long run — especially combined as it is from time to time with an “I’m the smartest guy in the room and you’re not” affect. His latest video — a snarky takeoff on David Letterman’s Top Ten List in which Turanchik mocks all the things the other candidates have done that he would never do as mayor — compounds that unlikeable impression.

By contrast, his competitors include a candidate who virtually embodies likeability. At 77, Dick Greco still plays the role of everybody’s best friend as convincingly as ever; he has perfected the glad-handing style that twice won him two consecutive terms as mayor in 1967-74 and 1995-2003. He promises to be “Tampa’s top sales person,” and he plans to partner with the business leaders he courted so successfully as mayor, drawing advice from such familiar (and deep-pocketed) figures as John Sykes and David Straz.

His ability to cultivate such partnerships, combined with his long experience, is unquestionably a strength of his candidacy, but the top-down approach it suggests is quite different from the grass-roots focus of Turanchik’s plans. And where Turanchik can talk in detail and at length about his plans, Greco, at least in debate settings, focuses more on what he has done as mayor in the past than on the specifics of what he would do as mayor in 2011.

Bob Buckhorn has positioned himself more than any other candidate as the antidote to the Greco model, at once honoring and dismissing the former mayor with the memorable catchphrase, “Other mayors have given Tampa its roots; I want to give Tampa its wings.”

Like Greco, he’s at ease with all kinds of people, with a friendly, polished public persona honed over eight years as assistant to Mayor Sandy Freedman, two terms on City Council and many years as a political consultant (not to mention previous runs for mayor and county commission). Unlike Greco, he can speak eloquently and in detail about his platform for the future of Tampa, which places special emphasis on restructuring city government, including the addition of a Deputy Mayor for Economic Opportunity, a Director of Protocol, International Trade and Commerce and a Chief Technology Officer.

His plans reflect (for better or worse) the perspective of one well-versed in city bureaucracy, but he has clearly looked hard at the problems facing the city and the possibilities for expanding its reach in tech-related industries and international trade. He knows his urban theory, too, artfully dropping Richard Florida’s name more than once during the CL debate; but there’s a sense that where he has read a lot about the creative economy, Ed Turanchik has lived it, and knows the people in Tampa Bay who are creating it from the ground up.

Rose Ferlita and Tom Scott can lay claim to being the candidates with the most immediate, and arguably the broadest, experience of city and county government. Ferlita served on county commission from 2006-2010 (plus two terms on Tampa City Council before that), and Scott is the current City Council chair, having served for four years on council following a decade (and three stints as chair) on the Hillsborough County Commission. Both have deep roots in the community, Ferlita an Ybor City native whose pharmacy in Seminole Heights brought her into close day-to-day contact with Tampa’s voters, Scott the Senior Pastor of the 34th Street Church of God for the past 30 years.

Ferlita promises an administration “grounded in trust, transparency and integrity,” a promise which seems utterly believable to anyone who remembers the righteous indignation she rained down on former Commissioner Kevin White during his expensive (for the taxpayers) sexual harassment scandal, or to anyone who’s talked to her in person; she’s direct, personable, no-nonsense. Scott, as the only African-American candidate and as councilman for a district that includes one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, offers a valuable perspective and a proven record of leadership for disadvantaged communities.

Both have good ideas — Ferlita emphasizes public and private partnerships, Scott has focused particular attention on the Port of Tampa — but in comparison with the platforms of Turanchik and Buckhorn, theirs are thin on detail and short on vision.

Making an endorsement in this race was a tough decision. Each of the candidates is able, experienced, thoughtful — with two, Ed Turanchik and Bob Buckhorn, rising above the others in terms of energy, smarts and preparedness.

Finally we chose, not just a candidate who has strong, specific plans for the Tampa of the future, but one who has always seemed to embody that future — in his record, in his dreams, in his very guts.

Ed Turanchik has always been ahead of the curve. Now it’s time Tampa caught up with him, and let this visionary pragmatist take the lead.

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