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Greco's swan song has same old tune

[an error occurred while processing this directive] By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 15, 2002

I wouldn't mind Dick Greco so much if he weren't, oh, so Dick Greco: rambling, long-winded, domineering in his affable way.

He appeared Friday before Tampa Tiger Bay, a gathering of political junkies who ought to know better than to sit still, as they did, and let him get away with his delivery of bromide after bromide.

It was, after all, his swan song. Greco, at 69, is approaching the twilight of his years, not to mention the end of his political career. A new mayor will be elected in Tampa this spring.

So a certain summing up would have been in order. What the audience got instead was a heaping of warmed-over Dick.

He fell back on his old habit, and his old speech, in which he talked about the past as though it were golden and perfect, as warming as a Norman Rockwell cover for the Saturday Evening Post, and the present as contentious and unfair.

In the old days, as Greco described them, people treated one another with respect. They believed in voting. And politicians were treated nicely.

His frame of reference for the good old days he remembers is in 1967, when he first entered politics on the Tampa City Council. A man who sees these as unflawed times has to do some mighty purposeful forgetting. The schools weren't desegregated. Politics was absolutely a white man's game. And the press -- Greco's favorite culprit -- didn't necessarily watch public life as closely as it does now.

This, Greco does not regard as a blessing.

We get the story wrong or we don't report it, or so he said. We make stuff up, or so he said. The worst part is, people believe it. He even took issue Friday with publishing letters to the editor. It's impossible to miss his subtext: Why can't the press be respectful too, and stop asking such annoying questions about mayors and such?

Nowhere was it better illustrated than in his defense of his former housing chief, Steve LaBrake, the subject of a state ethics investigation and a grand jury probe, whose troubles wouldn't have come to light if it weren't for the press.

Greco stood by LaBrake to the end. Never raised a question about his conduct. Complained instead about the questioners, who wanted to know why he didn't cut LaBrake loose when the evidence -- that LaBrake got a sweet deal from a city contractor who built his new home -- began to mount.

"Sacrificing a man to make myself look good ... I would never do that," Greco said.

The Tiger Bay crowd sat contentedly through this bilge. I have seen this happen before. Greco mesmerizes any crowd. He has this ability to dominate people by his charm, by spinning his unique version of the facts so convincingly that any thought of disagreeing with him seems to evaporate. Smoke and mirrors though it may be -- Greco believes in what he says. Sincerity oozes from him, as does his whisk-of-the-hand disdain for the details of just about anything.

He mentioned that the city's Web site had just won an award. He confessed to never having so much as turned on a computer. "I've never seen it," Greco said of the Web site, "but I know it's important."

This is the way Tampa has been governed for the last eight years, by a smile, a wave, quiet deals among friends.

My own view of the man is that he's out of touch with the generation behind him, and the generation behind that, the people whom he bemoans don't vote. The next mayor's race contains at least three major candidates, and a couple are of the generation behind Greco -- men who know how computers work and how the rules of politics have changed.

That's what they have. What they lack is Greco's gift with people. I never thought I'd say this: I don't like how he woos people, but I'm going to miss it.

-- Mary Jo Melone can be reached at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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