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Iorio's race began with little steps over years

By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 7, 2003


Gerald White remembers.

Frank Perez remembers too.

They remember what it was like when they first met Pam Iorio.

For White, a Democratic Party activist, it was the meeting Iorio arranged 10 years ago, just after she became Hillsborough's elections supervisor. She sat down with White and several other well-known people in mostly black East Tampa and asked what she could do to make voting go more smoothly in the neighborhood.

For Perez, the chairman of the social studies department at South Tampa's Plant High School, it was the time five years ago when Iorio first visited Plant and talked to the seniors about the importance of registering to vote when they turned 18.

These are the moves of a competent public official -- and a savvy pol who knows that all politics comes down to the personal and that there are all sorts of ways, some of them subtle, to issue an IOU.

On Monday, White and Perez returned the favors once done them by the former elections supervisor.

The two men were in the crowd on the wind-swept bank of the Hillsborough River at the University of Tampa where Iorio declared herself a candidate for mayor of Tampa.

Now White is on a 30-plus member steering committee that will advise Iorio during her breakneck, last-minute campaign.

Perez, meanwhile, is a harbinger of what may happen in this election that is less than two months away. He had supported Frank Sanchez, the well-financed former Clinton administration official who returned to his hometown to run. Now that Iorio is in the race, Perez has switched sides.

I stood on the riverbank, too, on Monday as a couple of hundred people -- even Iorio's eighth-grade social studies teacher from Greco Junior High -- cheered. It was impossible to miss the excitement in the crowd, but also impossible to correctly guess what the excitement meant. When you're thick in the crowd, the person behind the microphone giving the speech always looks like a winner.

Iorio is facing three other major candidates, all men. While she's way late in entering the campaign, they've been running for years. But there is a historic parallel that bodes well for Iorio.

In 1996, three women and one man battled it out for Tampa's congressional seat. The women were former mayor Sandy Freedman, former Hillsborough Commissioner Phyllis Busansky, and Pat Frank, now a commissioner. The man was then-state Rep. Jim Davis.

Busansky and Frank were eliminated in the primary. That left Freedman and Davis in a runoff, which Davis won. One man managed to defeat three women, all of them important figures in local politics -- as powerful as Frank Sanchez and the two City Council members running for mayor, Bob Buckhorn and Charlie Miranda.

Given this bit of history, if I were one of those guys I'd be in church right now, lighting candles and murmuring prayers.

But if I were Iorio, I'd be real careful.

In 18 years, she has never lost an election, first for county commissioner and then elections supervisor. Her record for honorable behavior in office is also untarnished.

This other bit of history would make anybody proud but also maybe too confident. So many people have reacted the way Gerald White and Frank Perez did, so many have treated her as the golden girl who has done no wrong and never could, that Iorio runs the risk of falling for her own PR, not running as hard as she must, and losing the prize already within her reach.

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

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