The Fire Down Below

Lust makes the political world go 'round.

One thing I miss about the job I had before joining the Weekly Planet is my ex-partner in political consulting, Mary Repper.

I miss her stories. Repper spent 30-plus years in politics at the national, state and local level. She can spin a yarn about anyone from George McGovern to Gary Hart to Warren Beatty.

My favorites were the tales that demonstrated the power - and absurdity - of sex.

"We've had a rich history of lust in politics," Repper said. "It's been going on for decades."

Like the time in the mid-1980s when Repper was out and about delivering yard signs in local campaigns. When she stopped by unannounced to drop off some signs at the home of one of her clients running for the Legislature, she unexpectedly walked in on the candidate's wife in flagrante delicto with one of the candidate's employees. She never told her client, but the campaign went downhill from there.

Or the time she and her husband, Bill, went to dinner at a restaurant in south St. Petersburg. As they walked in, she saw a judge she had just helped reach the bench. The jurist was shit-faced drunk and accompanied by a gorgeous woman. Not his wife.

"He didn't recognize me, and I had gotten him elected the year before," Repper recalled. "Of course, the idiots who run the restaurant seat us right behind him. And [the judge and his honey are] doing this what's-your-sign kinda thing. I had to get up and let him know I was there, because I felt it was only going to get worse. 'Judge, remember me, I got you elected?'"

The tone of the immoral wooing changed after that.

"Unfortunately," Repper said, "it's all about lust."

There is nothing new about sexual scandals in politics. There are only new chapters.

State Representative Byron Combee resigned in disgrace in 1986 after being arrested and charged with lewd and lascivious behavior in a Clearwater park. That same year, Clearwater legislative candidate Jim Calderbank ended his campaign after being caught having sex with a woman on Clearwater Beach. In 1990, a Tampa Bay area labor judge, Louis Tidwell, saw his two-decade career go bye-bye after he pleaded no contest to more than a dozen counts of lewd and lascivious behavior on a child, among other related allegations. Pinellas County Commissioner Bruce Tyndall resigned in disgrace after being arrested in a sting that used women and cocaine as the bait.

The latest in the long litany of sex scandals in Tampa Bay poltics surfaced last week when the former longtime head of the powerful Tampa firefighters union was fired after his bosses learned he had facilitated an explicit photo shoot at the department's Station 21 featuring local strippers.

According to the fire department's investigation, the now-disgraced fire captain, Al Suarez, hooked up with a pair of strippers and their photographers through another firefighter who moonlighted at Thee Dollhouse in Tampa, where one of the women worked. (In interviews with investigators, Suarez put the blame for the whole thing on the moonlighting firefighter.) The very graphic photos - which would definitely get you kicked off public access television - ended up on paid Internet sites, such as www.watchersweb.com (caution: an explicit porno site). One set of the photos featured a 24-year-old Tampa stripper named "Jamie," who has her own websites as well, including www.jamiesxxxworld.com (caution: another explicit porno site).

The mainstream media could not print most of the photos, some of which are of such a close-up high quality that they would be more at home in an ob-gyn conference Powerpoint presentation. The cutesy cheesecake shots in the dailies and on TV news didn't reveal the full scope of the activity at Station 21 in October 2004.

This wasn't some good-natured fun for the boys on a slow fire day. The photos were explicit shots, dozens of them, including five that ended up being used to enter a Watchersweb contest that pays cash for the hottest photos. (A quick review of Watchersweb shows that "Jamie" has won before.) Enabling the activity was Suarez, who was for years the most powerful man in Tampa union politics. He then, according to the fire department's investigation, lied about it and tried to get his colleagues to cover it up.

I worked with Suarez on countless campaigns. Getting the support of the city firefighters was crucial, as it translated to positive PR (especially post-9/11, when firefighters polled higher than any other group in terms of voter empathy and trust) and logistical support. The firefighters union was especially good at automated telephone calls years before anyone else got into the robo-calling business. It did voter surveys constantly and knew who was winning and who would lose.

Then, one day, during the 2003 city elections, Suarez up and quit his union leadership position after engineering the union's "non-endorsement" in the mayoral race, a stunning blow to candidate Bob Buckhorn, who had pretty much done everything but shine the union's fire boots during his off-hours and enjoyed widespread support among the rank-and-file. Suarez showed up shortly after that as a supporter of Pam Iorio's on the campaign trail. And Iorio won.

That Iorio enjoys a very close relationship with the pivotal union is no secret. The union's complaints about former fire chief Aria Green played a major role in her abrupt dismissal of him. One supposes that Chief Green had a hard-and-fast rule against porno shoots in city fire stations, though I haven't checked the Tampa Fire and Rescue rulebook.

Suarez's relationship with the mayor did not save him. The whole affair, however, raises issues of the union's power and propriety in City Hall, concerns that Iorio should address quickly and loudly in light of the lingering questions about Green's departure.

Back when I was a young political consultant, we sneaked fully clothed clients into fire stations to shoot the requisite candidate-chats-with-firefighters color photo. It never occurred to me to sneak in strippers. I guess I was never really cut out for politics.

The Political Whore writes far too often about sex. He likes it that way. You can reach Political Whore at 813-832-6427 or by e-mail at [email protected].