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Embattled former judge to run for mayor

With a name that often recalls controversies, F. Dennis Alvarez says he'd be a consensus builder.

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 5, 2002

TAMPA -- F. Dennis Alvarez, the former chief judge who presided over a courthouse that careened from scandal to scandal, announced Friday he will pursue an ambition he's harbored since the age of 12: to be mayor of Tampa.

In announcing his candidacy, Alvarez chose a tactic that reflects his penchant for cozy, face-to-face politics. All day long, he took reporters one by one into his Davis Islands home. "To give you an opportunity to know me," he said.

Alvarez, 56, wearing a monogrammed shirt with tiny American flags for cuff links, described himself as a consensus builder, a delegator and "a person who gets along with most anybody."

"I do not micromanage," he said. "If I'm mayor, I'm not going to tell the chief of police how to run the Police Department."

A judge for 20 years and a lawyer before that, Alvarez said he would contact business and neighborhood leaders to learn their concerns for the city. He said he supported both the controversial surveillance cameras in Ybor City and a massive cultural arts district along the Hillsborough River.

More than the other two mayoral candidates -- Tampa council members Bob Buckhorn and Charlie Miranda -- Alvarez's name instantly conjures up controversy.

During the last two years of his 13-year stint as Hillsborough's chief judge, the courthouse at times has become a three-ring circus of scandals, with one judge accused of raising money for a politician, another judge having an affair with a bailiff, another firing off lascivious e-mails. In one case, Alvarez's close friend, Judge Robert Bonanno, was caught sneaking into fellow Judge Greg Holder's chambers after hours.

Critics say Alvarez tried to hush up these embarrassments, and a grand jury last January said he should have done more to prevent the scandals. But Alvarez said he has no regrets, and maintains that some courthouse matters -- such as the Bonanno-Holder incident -- would have been better kept "in house."

"I thought I could get two grown individuals to sit down and work their problems out," he said. "I don't think there's a chief judge in the state of Florida that would have done any differently."

As chief judge, Alvarez said, "What control did I have of Bonanno going into Holder's office?"

Alvarez insists he left the courthouse a better place than when he got there, and it was unfair to judge his performance on a couple of bad years. "You don't fire a coach for one game," he said.

Alvarez's courthouse accomplishments include a drug court that provides treatment for juvenile offenders, a domestic violence division, and a "rocket docket" designed to reduce case backlogs.

As mayor, he said, he will set a tough ethical tone. "If someone does something wrong in my administration, they're gone, friend or foe," he says.

Alvarez has also faced criticism for authorizing surveillance bugs in the Valrico home of Steve and Marlene Aisenberg, suspects in the disappearance of their baby daughter in 1997. After the case imploded under claims of fabricated evidence, Alvarez claimed detectives misled him about the evidence.

When Alvarez announced his resignation from the courthouse in July, it ended an ongoing Judicial Qualifications Commission inquiry into his handling of the courthouse scandals.

Alvarez said he did not resign for that reason, and has never even been told the JQC -- which oversees the conduct of judges -- has targeted him.

An Ybor City native, Alvarez is married and has two sons, 30 and 13 years old. He now works in private practice doing mediation law.

Alvarez said he's ready for the rough-and-tumble of campaigning. "I think the last two years at the courthouse prepared me for just about anything," he said. "I don't want to be 62, 65 years old and say, "I should have, I could have.' This is my only time."

Susan MacManus, political science professor at the University of South Florida, said the race to succeed Mayor Dick Greco in the 2003 election is shaping up as "one of the most interesting mayor's races in Tampa history." Alvarez's opponents, she said, will not let him forget the courthouse troubles.

"I think they will be relentless in holding his feet to the fire and asking him to explain that," she said.

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