Tampa, Yesterday and Today

click to enlarge University of Tampa Professor Robert J. Kerstein, - author of - Sean Deren
Sean Deren
University of Tampa Professor Robert J. Kerstein, author of

Today's public officials and newspaper publishers fight the good fight against terrorism. A century ago, politicians and newspapermen in Tampa were the terrorists. Only back then, their activity was excused as economic development.

Tampa has always been a city on the make. But University of Tampa Professor Robert J. Kerstein impressively details in his new book, Politics and Growth in Twentieth-Century Tampa (University Press of Florida, $55), how his adopted hometown often deviated from the single-minded hunt for new industry so typical of most Sunbelt communities. "Tampa's politics during the past century was rarely tame and consensual," Kerstein writes. Workers in Tampa's first and still best known industry knew that well. Cuban cigar factory owners fled Key West for promises of labor peace in Ybor City and West Tampa. The Anglo business elite here did its best to deliver.

The Spanish, Cuban and Italian immigrants who skillfully rolled high-quality Tampa smokes were a radical bunch, even before arriving on these shores. The shabby treatment they received from factory owners and city fathers did nothing to moderate their leftist politics.

Worker protests and strikes were common from the 1880s to the 1930s.

Fearful that factory owners would pick up once again, Tampa businessmen and politicians took the law into their own hands to ensure their meal tickets stayed put. A 1901 "citizens' committee" of vigilantes went so far as to kidnap a dozen or so union leaders and dump the militants in Honduras. Return to Tampa and die, the unionists were warned.

Among this merry band of well-heeled abductors was probably one Donald Brenham McKay. Kerstein considers D.B. McKay a pivotal civic figure.

Graduating from lynch mobs, McKay went on to be mayor as well as publisher of one of the city's two mainstream newspapers, the Tampa Daily Times. (His journalistic competitor, Tampa Morning Tribune Publisher Wallace F. Stovall, was equally bloodthirsty when offering editorial guidance to the community about how to subdue labor.)

McKay, descended from a founding Tampa family, was also related to the Lykes clan. His cousin, Charles McKay Wall, headed the numbers racket known as bolita until Italian gangsters forced him into retirement. McKay also wed the daughter of a Spanish engineer who laid out the streets of Ybor City for factory owners Vicente Martinez Ybor and Ignacio Hava.

"Thus, in one person," Kerstein writes, "McKay represented ties with Tampa's wealthy pioneer families, with the head of Tampa's gambling empire, and with some of Tampa's Latin cigar factory owners."

McKay's most dubious achievement was helping form the White Municipal Party in 1910. The party effectively denied blacks the ability to participate in Tampa elections for the next three decades.

The rationale for the White Municipal Party was to limit the impact of "the purchasable vote" in local elections. If blacks sold their votes, they were hardly alone.

During his 12 years of researching and writing the book, Kerstein came across a memorandum penned by attorney Peter O. Knight, one of Tampa's original influence peddlers. In the document, Knight helpfully reviewed for an associate which lily-white city officials could be bribed.

On a recent afternoon, Kerstein talked about his book in his office on UT's Hyde Park campus. His desk strives to hold its own in the small room. The cozy academic warren is overrun with hundreds of books about government, history and urban politics stuffed onto shelves and into a closet. A few volumes have spilled to the floor.

Kerstein said he was inspired to compile a local political history by earlier books from two University of South Florida colleagues. Gary R. Mormino and Robert P. Ingalls have written extensively on Ybor City and the vigilantism that targeted its first inhabitants.

Tampa's periodic and reluctant acceptance of traditionally disenfranchised groups such as labor unions or preservationists makes the city's history as interesting as that of many older Rust Belt locales. "Some in Tampa would look back at our labor history and be proud," said Kerstein, who then laughed. "Others wouldn't."

Although African-Americans were legally shut out of Tampa elections into the 1940s, unionists and other progressives enjoyed some success at the polls. Kerstein argues these anomalies set Tampa apart from other urban areas of the South. In 1900, for example, a coalition of labor and selected commercial interests handed the mighty Knight a rare defeat, turning back a slate of candidates who took their cues from his stable of banking, railroad and utility clients. "He had his fingers in so many things," Kerstein said of Knight. "He was very staunch conservative, anti-labor unequivocally." Unions played a big role in drafting the 1900 coalition's platform, which called for municipal ownership of utilities as well as for fairer vote counts in Tampa's notoriously fraudulent elections.

Particularly during the 1920s and 1930s, bolita czar Charlie Wall had a lot to say about how the votes were tabulated. Kerstein credits Wall attorney Pat C. Whitaker with determining the outcome of Tampa's most infamous election.

The corrupt balloting of 1935 was conducted in the midst of a hurricane and a National Guard deployment. The troops weren't out for the weather, though. They had to keep the peace between city police and sheriff's deputies, whose respective bosses backed opposing mayoral candidates.

Incumbent Robert E. Lee Chancey trounced the aging D.B. McKay in the white primary. But nobody really knows who collected the most votes.

Whitaker, Chancey's brother-in-law, stacked the election board with mayoral sympathizers who encouraged their side to vote early and often. "A large number of repeaters cast votes," Kerstein writes, "and stuffing ballots, a practice referred to as the "blind mice game,' was prevalent."

Reform efforts were halfhearted until the 1950s. U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver's organized-crime committee hearings in Tampa spelled out for a national audience the decades-long collusion between murderous mobsters and only slightly more respectable public officials. The publicity, Tampa's elite decided, wasn't going to be good for tourism or industry recruitment.

That set the stage for a man Kerstein sees as an unsung hero of Tampa history: Cody Fowler. The Tampa lawyer, president of the American Bar Association at the time, helped form a crime commission that tried to clean up local politics. Later in the 1950s, Fowler joined prominent blacks on a biracial civil rights committee.

Yet that panel could do little to curtail the "urban removal" initiatives of a string of Tampa mayors, who dislodged hundreds of black households from rental properties around downtown and Ybor City.

Reform came slowly to Hillsborough County government, too. Developer-obedient county commissions chaired by Ellsworth Simmons gave way in the 1970s to the broader perspectives of Betty Castor and Fran Davin, who emerged from the local League of Women Voters to champion the cause of neighborhood groups wanting to curb the wide-open growth. "At any point in time, you can point to people who most would agree were bright lights, people of integrity," said Kerstein. "You had that then. You have that today. It's easy to highlight the negative because there was a lot." Tampa's first election of the 21st century could be the city's most fascinating in a generation, according to Kerstein. Not since a special election precipitated by Dick Greco's first departure from the mayor's office have Tampa voters been presented with such a competitive field.

In the 1974 special mayoral runoff, insurance man William F. Poe triumphed over Joe Kotvas, who was later jailed in a county zoning scandal. The primary field included a future mayor and governor, Bob Martinez.

Next year, city councilmen Bob Buckhorn and Charlie Miranda hope to move up to the mayor's office. A well-schooled prodigal son of Tampa, Frank Sanchez, may present a strong challenge from outside of city government, as would have Pam Iorio. She announced March 7 that she will stay county elections supervisor. "It's kind of a free-for-all," said Kerstein, "in a positive sense."

Contact Staff Writer Francis X. Gilpin at 813-248-8888, ext. 130, or [email protected].

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