The top 10 political developments of 2011

Vocal protests, voter apathy and other Tampa Bay phenomena.

click to enlarge CROWD SUPPORT: Bob Buckhorn and fans on the night of the Tampa mayoral election. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
CROWD SUPPORT: Bob Buckhorn and fans on the night of the Tampa mayoral election.

With Florida and Tampa due for increased national attention in this coming election year, we look back at a year of vocal protests and voter apathy, media upheaval and media obsession, and more harbingers of what's to come in 2012.

The Left gets its ass off the couch and into the streets. After Democrats nationally and in Florida hit a high-water mark by electing a president and a Congress in 2008, the right wing in the U.S. and in Florida reacted furiously in the form of the Tea Party less than a year later. But three words — Governor. Rick. Scott. — seemed to scare the bejeezers out of the body politic and shake them out of their complacency.

Liberals, joined in some cases by independents and even some Republicans, got motivated, first in the springtime with the series of protests that began with the beginning of the Legislative session that called itself Awake the State! That group and its affiliates made it known that they were not okay with Scott and the GOP-led Legislature turning the clock back on growth management, electoral access and a myriad of other issues, including education. (Not that it had that much influence over what the Legislature did, which was to lead the state into what former St. Petersburg Times columnist Howard Troxler told CL was "Pre-1980s backwardism," adding that "I think the people of Florida will be amazed and disappointed when they see the full effect of it.") That was followed in the fall by the Occupy Wall Street movement, which became most prominent locally in Tampa, first at Lykes Gaslight Park, and since mid-October, as a permanent presence at Curtis Hixon Park.

The Tea Party reveals its not so pretty head locally — and then gets burned. Whether in fact the Tea Party movement has peaked in Florida won’t be entirely clear until next November, but it made its local presence felt most prominently this year in Pinellas County, where a group of activists began showing up en masse at budget hearings and took to savaging the more moderate members of the board (Republicans Susan Latvala and Karen Seel and the lone Democrat, Ken Welch) for their, well, moderate stances. The revolution scored a victory when the Commission voted 4-3 to take fluoride out of the drinking water supply in parts of the County (not in St.Pete, however).

Spearheading the anti-fluoride movement on the board was Norm Roche, the 49-year-old Pinellas native who for years couldn’t get arrested running as a Democrat, but adroitly picked up on the rightward wave in 2010 and ran and won as a Republican, defeating Calvin Harris. But in November, Roche was exposed by the St. Petersburg Times’ David DeCamp as having written numerous online comments on the paper’s website criticizing fellow board members, the Times, as well as gays and blacks, all under the pseudonym of "Reality." After he was busted, a chastened Roche said he would no longer write such anonymous comments.

Where were the voters? The example of the Tea Party shows that those who shout loudest often get their way the most. Both Tampa and St. Pete held municipal elections in 2011. The number of people who actually voted in those races was lackluster, leading to all types of excuses about why the citizenry wasn’t very engaged. In Tampa, 22.3 percent came out to vote in the Bob Buckhorn-Rose Ferlita race for mayor last March. In St. Pete, just 14.5 percent filled out a ballot in the local races, which was somehow considered a "big improvement." Meanwhile in Jacksonville in May, 36.81 percent came out to vote in their last mayoral election.

Okay, so it's not fair to compare St. Pete to Tampa or Jacksonville. The latter two cities had interesting, competitive mayoral races, while St. Pete had one of the most boring elections ever. But what was up with Tampa falling 14 percentage points below J-Ville in voter participation?

Tampa elects a new mayor and City Council. For those who cared, the race in Tampa for all seven City Council seats as well as the first competitive mayoral race in eight years was a big deal. The ballot listed a total of 33 candidates, and seemingly every neighborhood and/or media organization held local forums (including CL with the mayoral candidates). The worst of these affairs took place on a rainy night in Seminole Heights, during which nearly 30 men and women sat in uncomfortable chairs and listened for nearly two hours to each candidate getting five minutes to make his or her pitch. On a night like that, one almost felt sorry for the 77-year-old Greco having to sit through the endeavor. But the packed ballot was in fact emblematic of the fact that this actually was a big election, with so many new faces vying to be on the Council.

Former Mayor Dick Greco was the comfortable mayoral choice for people who thought less about the city's future than its not-really-so-glorious past. But as the campaign developed, it was obvious that only Bob Buckhorn and Ed Turanchik had the requisite vision called for in our economically battered times. True, both had been out of office for a while, and ultimately, Buckhorn was a safer choice than the visionary Turanchik (who earned CL's endorsement in the primary).

Buckhorn won a smashing 26 percent victory over Ferlita in the general election, granting the 53-year-old a chance he'd been waiting a lifetime to get. But his biggest challenge lies ahead: the protests and the potential chaos that could accompany the Republican National Convention next summer. Led by Chief Jane Castor, the Tampa Police Department has avoided some of the battles that have plagued other cities with their Occupy movements. Then again, most of those cities have some sort of history with activists; Tampa does not.

Although he may still become their standard bearer, Mitt Romney is not a very well-liked candidate in the GOP race for president. To illustrate this, take former St. Pete Mayor Rick Baker — please. CL bumped into the extremely tall former leader of the 'Burg at CPAC Florida, the all-day event in Orlando sandwiched between a Fox News debate and the Florida Straw poll that made Herman Cain a household name for a couple of months. At the time, Baker told us that he was torn between supporting Romney and Rick Perry, then the repository of the anti-Romney vote — even though Baker was Romney's state chair when he ran for president in 2007-2008. But after Cain stunned the political world, Baker quickly signed on to the 9-9-9 man's campaign. In mid-December, the mayor said he was undecided about whom to back.

Tampa Bay is gaining a reputation for being a lousy region for pro sports. Recently Sports Illustrated called September 28, 2011, a date that will "live in ecstasy." That was the night, you might recall, when the Rays came back from a 7-0 deficit, and at 12:05 a.m. beat the Yankees dramatically 8-7 in 12 innings and, thanks to a colossal Boston Red Sox choke job, took the American League East. A crowd of 29,518 saw it, one of the larger crowds of the season.

But overall Tampa Bay struggled mightily in attendance, with the 1,529,188 home attendance the second worst in the league, surpassing only the lowly Oakland A's. While people obsess about what might happen to the Rays vis-a-vis a new stadium, the bigger question is if and when the community will actively support the team.

The Tampa Bay Bucs were one of the biggest disappointments in 2011, but they did share one thing with their surprising, 10-6 team in 2010. That is, the majority of their home games failed to sell out, making blackouts an accepted fate in Tampa Bay, a far, far cry from a decade ago.

Tampa Bay media takes a blow. For years the Tampa Tribune and TBO.com have been on an austerity diet, with lurking fears that there was always something worse coming. That "something worse" happened on Monday, December 12, when 165 employees affiliated with the Trib and its sister publications got a call at around 7:30 a.m., informing them that their services were no longer required, and that they could come by later that night for 90 minutes to pick up their personal belongings at the office. The question at this point is simply: Can this paper survive? No doubt a daily edition will publish through the RNC and probably afterwards, but it's not idle speculation to consider the unthinkable.

Go Davis gets booted by Bill Foster. We’re into year three of the first and possibly only term of St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster's term. It was a challenging year for the mayor, what with the city suffering from its first police department casualties in three decades. It was Goliath Davis' refusal to attend the funerals of those slain officers that led to a shitstorm of criticism, pushing Foster to fire Davis from his senior administrative post with the city.

No hurricanes. Again. Not that your property insurance bills reflect that fact.

The Casey Anthony case. Not! We loved it when a good friend of ours swore to us that the case was important "to learn about our judicial system." Please. Though we'd love to say that the intense interest in this case says something about our society, we can't. At least the O.J. case had some racial ramifications.

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