Amiable mayor bumps up against political reality
By DAVID KARP, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- When he sat down this week with Cuban President Fidel Castro, Dick Greco struck one of the personal connections that has made him one of Tampa's most enduring politicians.
The two men talked for almost six hours about subjects ranging from Chilean wine to casino gambling.
It was vintage Greco, a classic example of how Tampa's mayor can form a bond with almost anyone, even the much-despised dictator of one of the world's few remaining Communist governments.
But supporters say the feel-good style that makes Greco so effective on a personal level is also one of his failings. They say his fondness for people can interfere with his ability to draw black-and-white lines -- and make decisions based on hard analysis.
People were stunned that Greco would risk alienating many Cuban-Americans who supported his political career by meeting with a man they consider a murderer. They wondered how Greco, who claims to be so feeling, could act so cold.
Greco did not defend his meeting with Castro by discussing foreign policy or economic benefits. Instead, he made an emotional appeal.
"I love them," Greco said of the many Cuban-Americans he has worked with and befriended over the years. "Those that know me know that."
The theme, which Greco has evoked before when faced with criticism, is a key element in his governing style. He believes that people he likes, even when they make mistakes, are essentially good.
Several of Greco's longtime friends said Friday that Greco certainly didn't mean to offend Cuban-Americans by lunching with Castro.
"Dickie does a lot of things out of instinct," said longtime friend Phil Alessi Sr. "Sometimes they don't always work out. I know he always has the right intentions."
Greco's physical mannerisms epitomize his love-me attitude. He pinches the cheeks of female aides, squeezes the hands of female journalists, kisses friends and strangers and often asks reporters, "Are you happy?"
He gets excited talking about art, architecture, lush landscaping and beautiful women.
"Dick has great compassion for people," friend George Levy said. "He always feels for people, what they go through and their struggles."
Greco's people skills have served the city well in times of crisis. When two Tampa police detectives were murdered in 1998, Greco comforted their widows and, in a sense, the entire city.
Greco, who often listens to the police scanner, sometimes shows up at crime scenes to comfort victims. People say his warmth makes them feel appreciated and optimistic.
When he visited Cuba, Greco mingled with maids and cab drivers. His voice cracked as he spoke about their quiet dignity.
"It almost reminded me of Ybor City . . . when I was a kid," he said.
Despite his willingness to bring people together, some people say Greco failed to recognize how much his visit with Castro could hurt the people he wants to help.
"He said he saw a lot of despair," said Simon Canasi, a longtime Greco friend. "The bottom line is he sat across the table from the guy responsible for the despair."
Greco acknowledges he did not think through all of the trip's effects.
He said he didn't consider what it might do to Tampa's chances of landing the 2004 Republican National Convention. He said he didn't think it might be used as propaganda by the Cuban government, in part because he told Castro he would never cross President Bush's policies.
But official government photographers snapped photos of Castro and Greco together, people on the trip said.
Greco didn't frame the decision to meet Castro as a moral choice, as others have said he should.
"It's just wrong," said lawyer Dario Diaz, the partner of prominent anti-Castro lawyer Ralph Fernandez. "It's wrong ethically, it's wrong morally, it's wrong politically."
Greco's unwillingness to make judgments about people has caused occasional tremors at City Hall. In eight years, Greco hasn't personally terminated a single city official for cause. That includes former city housing chief Steve LaBrake, now under federal criminal investigation.
Greco refused to fire LaBrake, even as his close friends were telling him to, essentially saying later he didn't have the heart to do it.
Others don't buy Greco's nice-guy exterior. They say he's a phony. That's why he used emotion, rather than reason, to explain his trip, Diaz said.
"The only way out he could have was to somehow go to sympathy, somehow go to understanding, somehow reach out on an emotional level, rather than a logical, responsive level," Diaz said.
As Diaz listened to Greco's speech, he grew angrier.
"About 10 minutes into it, I realized what a magnificent politician he is," he said.
-- David Karp can be reached at (813) 226-3376 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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