Mayor Dick Greco is trying to stay quiet, but many of his supporters back Frank Sanchez.
By DAVID KARP, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 23, 2002
TAMPA -- Inside the Culbreath Isles home of car dealer Carl Lindell Jr., an invited crowd gathered this month to raise money for mayoral candidate Frank Sanchez.
On the host committee were some of Tampa's best-known businessmen and lawyers -- figures such as Lazy Days RV owner Don Wallace and Edward J. DeBartolo Jr., former owner of the San Francisco 49ers.
But missing from the party was the person many believe to be the main mover in the Sanchez campaign: Mayor Dick Greco.
Greco has told friends that he and his wife won't attend campaign parties, even for old friends such as Lindell, because he isn't taking sides in the 2003 mayor's race.
"I think people are capable of making up their own minds," he said in an interview Friday.
But some of Greco's closest supporters have lined up behind Sanchez, making it look like the coalition that put Greco in office has shifted to Sanchez.
The backing from Greco's camp has transformed Sanchez, a businessman who moved back to Tampa a year ago to launch his first run for office, into the city establishment's candidate. In a few weeks Sanchez raised as much money as the two veteran politicians in the race. City Council members Bob Buckhorn and Charlie Miranda, who are both running for mayor, see Greco's influence behind Sanchez's success. They don't think Greco has remained neutral.
Greco has been making phone calls to support Sanchez, attending campaign events and steering his friends to Sanchez's side, Buckhorn said.
"Everyone knows. He might as well admit it," Buckhorn said. "I think it is obvious to everyone who has followed this race where the loyalties lie and where the strings are being pulled."
Miranda laughs at the idea of a neutral Greco.
"Tell me you are (supporting Sanchez) and I can accept that," said Miranda, who has known Greco for years. "I am not a game player."
Greco denies helping Sanchez.
"I think it would be inappropriate to be involved," he said.
Political consultants say a public endorsement from Greco could hurt Sanchez as much as it helps him.
While Greco remains popular, his endorsement could prevent Sanchez from running as a fresh face, political consultant Wayne Garcia said.
"You never want to look like you are the heir apparent," Garcia said. "Voters don't like it if someone says, "I have appointed a successor.' "
Greco has publicly praised Sanchez's qualifications, but he said that doesn't mean he is backing him.
"You can't be uncomplimentary of him," Greco said. "He is a fine young man and has a great resume."
Greco has felt close to Miranda for years and is friendly with another candidate, County Commissioner Chris Hart, who volunteered on Greco's first campaign in 1967. Greco said he doesn't have anything against Buckhorn.
But the list of Sanchez's supporters includes many of Greco's allies. Sanchez, for example, plans to lease his campaign headquarters on Kennedy Boulevard from longtime Greco friend George Levy, who donated $250 to Sanchez's campaign.
Sanchez supporters include lawyer David Mechanik, whose firm gave the campaign $500. Mechanik worked on Greco's 1995 campaign and led the failed effort in 2000 to repeal term limits that prevent Greco from running again.
Other Greco friends backing Sanchez include Phil Alessi, whose bakery gave Sanchez $500; Ybor City architect Carlos Alfonso; car dealer Jim Ferman; tire dealer Olin Mott, whose company gave $500; and Jack Shiver, developer of the Don Vincente de Ybor hotel, which gave $500.
Sanchez moved back to Tampa, where he was raised, in 2001 after working in Washington as a White House aide and assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Before that, he worked as a lawyer in Miami and as an aide in Tallahassee to former Gov. Bob Graham.
Buckhorn said that Sanchez could not have garnered so much financial backing so quickly without Greco's machine behind him.
Without the mayor's assistance, "It would be hard to imagine that someone who hasn't lived here for 23 years could be even remotely credible," Buckhorn said.
But in about eight weeks, Sanchez's campaign raised $153,000, which is almost as much as the $162,000 Buckhorn raised over nine months.
As a longtime City Council member, Buckhorn said he supported most of Greco's agenda and considers Greco a successful mayor. But if elected, Buckhorn said he will operate independently of the former mayor and his aides.
"I am not for sale," Buckhorn said. "I am not going to be controlled. I am going to stand up and do what I think is right and say what I think is right. I am going to represent the people who don't have a voice at the table."
Sanchez, whose family has lived in Tampa for two generations, said he, too, will operate independently if elected.
If supporters give him money thinking they can easily influence him, "They will be sorely disappointed," Sanchez said. "The one thing I have had throughout my career is my integrity. I am not going to offer that up to be mayor."
He denied speculation that he has agreed to keep on or hire some of Greco's aides, including City Attorney Jim Palermo, if elected. "There is no deal with anyone," Sanchez said.
Sanchez said he doesn't particularly want Greco's endorsement -- although he won't reject it, either.
"I think it's important that people get to know me," said Sanchez, 42.
In an interview, Sanchez listed some of his differences with Greco. He said he would have fired city housing chief Steve LaBrake, who became the subject of a federal grand jury investigation into alleged corruption at City Hall.
Greco kept LaBrake on the job for months, pointing out that authorities have not charged LaBrake with a crime.
"To me it does not turn on whether what you did is legal or illegal," Sanchez said. "Anyone who creates an appearance of gross impropriety needs to go."
Sanchez's appeal doesn't come from his ties to Greco but from his own charm and quick thinking, his supporters say. At the New Tampa Rotary Club meeting Friday, Sanchez spoke easily in front of a crowd, making jokes and referring warmly to old friends in the audience.
Resident Mike Wallace was impressed. He didn't know anything about Sanchez before coming to the meeting and had heard Buckhorn address the same group earlier.
"He understands," Wallace said of Sanchez. "It's obvious (that) he's the man."
-- Times staff writer David Karp can be reached at (813) 226-3376 or firstname.lastname@example.org.