Tampa mayoral race in its final days: Which candidates have the momentum to win on March 1st?

Attorney Jason Watson said afterwards, “For me personally, I think Bob Buckhorn and Turanchik both stood out from the pack. They were probably the two candidates I knew the least about going into the debate, so I learned a lot there, but I can’t say I’ve made up my final decision.”


Pablo Aviles, who works in marketing, expressed the same sentiment. Before the debate he told CL that, all things being equal, he would give preference to the indigenous candidates, Greco and Rose Ferlita. But he changed his tune after the forum. “After listening to Mr. Buckhorn and Turanchik, they changed my opinion on that… I liked how they conducted themselves, they had solid ideas.”


Both men said they remained undecided, and would begin closely following the race over the next week before casting their votes.


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South Tampa businesswoman Debbie Lundberg went into last week’s South Tampa debate forum saying she was also favoring Greco or Rose Ferlita. But after that debate? She still liked the two Ybor City natives, but admitted that Ed Turanchik had impressed, saying he was more “fluid” than she’s seen him before.


“I find that a lot of times with him he’s a little bit more seemingly out there, almost too futuristic, and last night I thought he had some really solid ideas.”


A poll published last weekend suggested that homegrown institutional support for Tampa-born Greco and Ferlita has given them a natural edge over the other three candidates in the race (Turanchik, Buckhorn and Thomas Scott, all coincidentally non-native).


And that’s been a gap that those candidates have had to work to overcome since the beginning of the campaign, one voter at a time. For Bob Buckhorn, the lines are blurry as to when he actually began running for office. He boasts that he’s knocked on over 25,000 doors, a huge number that reveals his years-long ambition to be the top dog at City Hall (an ambition that went unfulfilled when he lost his bid for mayor in 2003, placing third behind Iorio and Frank Sanchez).


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Buckhorn was endorsed by the St. Petersburg Times, and nobody has been consistently better, night after night on the stump. His mantra that he’s fighting to make the city dynamic enough to keep the creative class in Tampa seemed in particular to touch the sensibilities at the Young Professionals forum last week.


But the most ascendant candidate trying to convince enough Tampa citizens that he’s electable is Ed Turanchik, a favorite of the progressive crowd. His reputation as an ideas machine seems to be converting true believers to his cause, but whether he’ll get enough votes to make the run-off is a huge unknown.


Sadly, Tampa City Councilman Thomas Scott, aspiring to become the city’s first black mayor, is rarely if ever discussed as having a viable chance for election. Lackluster fundraising has only added to the sense that he is the only candidate on election night not expected to have a chance of making the runoff.


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But if that is the case, the 57-year-old pastor can still raise his head high. Although many would consider his 14-year record as a local legislator to be relatively undistinguished, he has impressed many during the mayoral forums, and obviously brings a dose of reality to discussions about how far (or not) race relations have improved in Tampa.


The conventional wisdom says that the two candidates who have been the most specific about how they would take over on Day One, Buckhorn and Turanchik, may be on the outside looking in, while Greco and Ferlita may have the backing to get themselves into a run-off after the March 1 election (a run-off, which appears likely, would take place on March 22 between the two top finishers if no reaches 50 percent).


The Tampa natives have out-fundraised their opponents by a substantial amount in the race. (Greco, because of his deep connections to business and other sectors of the city, has been particularly successful, raising $90,000 more than Ferlita as of last week, whose totals came in second.) They have also enjoyed the two single biggest public displays of affection in the campaign: the 400 or so who came out to attend Greco’s official campaign announcement in late November, and the stunning 800-plus the Ferlita campaign said attended a spaghetti fundraiser at the Sons of Italy Lodge the Sunday before Valentine’s Day.


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If Ferlita makes it into the runoff, she’ll be credited as having smartly played her cards close to the vest by not saying or doing anything remotely edgy. Critics have said that she’s been heavy on the platitudes (“partnerships, partnerships, partnerships” is one of her favorite phrases) vs. substantive plans, but local politics is more about personality than policy, which is what Ferlita is banking on to move into the next round.


Of course, when it comes to personality, the septuagenarian Greco, win or lose, will continue to be one of the Cigar City’s leading celebrities, even if he’s not successful in his quest to be mayor for a fifth four-year term.


But Greco has shown a bit of a glass jaw in this campaign. In South Tampa last week, Ed Turanchik charged him with leaving the city in a trail of debt, referring to the purchase of the old Sun Trust building downtown to use as a new police headquarters in 1996. Turanchik said the city will ultimately pay $72 million to eliminate the debt from that purchase, spending $13 million a year beginning in 2016.


But in these days of concerns about government spending, Greco has been unrepentant, bragging about how everything good in Tampa is essentially because of him — even when he refuses to provide a blueprint for the future, instead invoking the names of Chuck Sykes and David Straz as the men who will help guide his decisions.


Then there are the inappropriate quips, such as comparing a civil riot in the late 1960s to a “panty-raid,” and his joking answer to a question about what jobs the candidates would give their opponents in their administrations. Following a consensus at the Young Professionals debate that the teetotaling Thomas Scott would be everyone’s choice for designated driver, Greco went on to answer the job question by saying that he’d offer Scott — the only black candidate — the job of “driver.”


Greco apologized for the first gaffe, but said he had nothing to apologize for in the latter case, saying that Scott knew it was meant in jest. But some members of the black community weren’t so forgiving, saying that the good ol’ boy network in Tampa that Greco has always reigned over isn’t the same in 2011 — and everybody but the former mayor knows it.Ella Coffee, Scott’s campaign manager, says the comments show Greco is stuck in a generation “that we can’t afford to return to,” adding, “It may have been a joke and he may not have meant anything by it, but if he feels those type of ‘Archie Bunker’ jokes are okay in 2011, he is not the person to move Tampa forward.”


University of Tampa Professor Scott Paine said that similar concerns about Greco arose in 1995 (when he returned to City Hall after a 21-year interregnum).


He said for those who already like Greco, his gaffes won’t change their mind. But based on polls, Paine thinks the former mayor will need more than his current level of 24 percent support to win a runoff. “He’s going to need people who haven’t decided that they like him,” which could cost him big in a one-on-one match up.


But does Greco get it? A campaign aide told CL that he knows better than to try to give the former mayor any advice, saying, “He’s on his own. …he doesn’t let us say anything.”


Can Buckhorn or Turanchik squeeze into the runoff? Buoyed by a surprising endorsement in the Tampa Tribune, the official voice of the establishment of Tampa, Turanchik began holding a series of events earlier this week to try to get his name and message out to voters of all stripes, but particularly young voters who might most be attracted to his plans for taking Tampa forward (Creative Loafing also endorsed him last week).


When asked about the distinction that candidates like Ferlita and Greco seem to have over non-natives like Turanchik, longtime community activist and radio commentator Jetie B. Wilds Jr., a Tampa native who has lived for long stretches in Portland, Oregon and suburban Washington D.C. (and who supports Turanchik ), says, “Tampa is a very special place in terms of how it is that we deal with those who are home-grown. There is a tendency not to look at what it is a person is offering for where we want to go, as much as looking at the good ol’ boys and good ol’ girls. That’s probably not so unusual for any community, but it doesn’t make it the best way of approaching things.”


Ed Turanchik and Bob Buckhorn can only hope that’s no longer the case.

There haven’t been too many questioners at Tampa mayoral forums older than Dick Greco. But last Friday, the 77-year-old former mayor snapped to attention at a Tiger Bay debate at the Straz Center as Sydney Potter, 92, took the mic to ask a question.

The longtime Hillsborough River advocate began by saying, “I’ve lived in Tampa longer than any of you,” before quoting a Tampa Tribune report from the beginning of Pam Iorio’s tenure that said the city faced “myriad problems, from criminal neighborhoods, crumbling infrastructure, skyrocketing debt and depleting reserves.”

And yes, the man Iorio replaced in 2003 was Dick Greco.

Potter later told CL that he thought Greco was “vastly overrated” as mayor, and wouldn’t give him another opportunity. But he admitted that he hadn’t made up his mind which of the five candidates to vote for.

CL encountered similar ambivalence while speaking to 20 and 30somethings who crowded into the Becks building in Tampa Heights last week before a forum sponsored by the Young Professionals of Tampa.

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