St. Petersburg Times Online
Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Democrats acquire a farm team

Those who declare the ballgame over aren't paying attention to the party's hot prospects in Tampa and other cities.

By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 9, 2003

TAMPA -- They say Democrats are an endangered breed at a time when Republicans control the governor's office, legislature and Cabinet. They say the Florida Democratic Party has no "bench" of next-generation candidates for statewide races.

They're not watching the Tampa mayor's race.

Four strong candidates, Democrats all, are vying to lead the Florida's third largest city. This happens to be the biggest city in the state's biggest media market. It sits on the central Florida swing voter corridor that decides state elections. It's home to the last mayor to ascend into the governor's mansion -- Democrat-turned-Republican Bob Martinez.

Sure, it's a non-partisan election, but don't kid yourself. Both parties closely watch and often aggressively involve themselves in big municipal elections. Lately, Democrats shell-shocked from their November trouncing are looking at Tampa and most other big Florida cities and smiling.

The way municipal elections are shaping up, it's more than plausible that by summertime, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker will be the only Republican leading a large city in Florida.

"We could possibly run the table of big cities in Florida," crowed Florida Democratic Chairman Scott Maddox, Tallahassee's outgoing mayor who looks likely to be succeeded by another Democrat.

As a mayor who last year madea strong showing in the Democratic primary for attorney general, Maddox knows not to discount the potential political strength of a successful mayor. "It gives you a significant fundraising base," he said, "and puts you in a real leadership position."

In Tampa, credible arguments could be made for any of the four main candidates -- City Council members Bob Buckhorn and Charlie Miranda, former elections supervisor Pam Iorio, and businessmen Frank Sanchez -- to win.

A recent firefighters poll found Iorio comfortably in the lead. But if she receives less than 50 percent of the vote, any of the other three could take second place and make it into a run-off election against Iorio. Low-turnout run-off elections can be unpredictable.

Miranda, the underdog, looks least likely to aspire to office beyond Tampa. But a win by any of the others would make them Democrats to watch for future Congressional or statewide races. Consider:

Frank Sanchez, 42, already has Democrats who know little about him buzzing about his future. He is a Harvard-educated Tampa native and international businessman who used to work in the Clinton administration.

He offers Democrats what they have long craved: a Hispanic candidate with broad appeal. Democrats see him as a potential rising star like Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, but without the baggage that comes from leading volatile Miami.

"Frank's got the most statewide potential," said Patrick Manteiga, publisher of La Gaceta newspaper and a Democratic activist. "Democrats need a statewide Hispanic candidate."

Then there's Iorio, 43, the popular former elections chief. She has a strong record on the Hillsborough County Commission and elections office, and during the 2000 election fiasco, she not only emerged unscathed but became something of a national voice on running elections right. She has the poise and polish of any U.S. senator.

Buckhorn, 44, has long been active in the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, and in 1992 turned down an offer to run Bill Clinton's Florida campaign in order to run, unsuccessfully, for the legislature. As a mayoral candidate, he has managed to pull support from diverse interests ranging from public safety groups to African-American leaders to Christian conservatives.

"He's the kind of centrist Democrat that Democrats thought they needed to beat (Jeb) Bush, but didn't quite get there with Bill McBride," said Adam Goodman, a Republican campaign consultant working for Buckhorn in the non-partisan race.

Former state Rep. Lars Hafner of St. Petersburg has long called for Democrats to work harder at building a farm team. He's thrilled with what he sees in Tampa.

"You're finally seeing Democrats do what the Republicans did so successfully 20 years ago," Hafner said. "And when you think about the mayor's race in Tampa, when you think about Congressman Jim Davis in Tampa, you're seeing rising stars who really have potential for statewide impact right here in our backyard."

The prospects look strong for Democrats in other cities too:

In Orlando, former Democratic attorney general candidate Buddy Dyer is the frontrunner to succeed Republican Mayor Glenda Hood, whom Gov. Bush recently named as secretary of state. Dyer has a Feb. 25 run-off against Republican Pete Barr.

In Jacksonville, Democratic Sheriff Nat Glover on Thursday rocked the landscape by jumping into the mayor's race. A post that looked likely to remain in Republican hands, now offers Democrats strong potential.

In Tallahassee, Democrat John Marks last week won 43 percent of the vote in a race featuring three main candidates. He is favored to beat Republican John Paul Bailey in a Feb. 25 run-off.

In West Palm Beach former state House Minority Leader and gubernatorial candidate Lois Frankel is mounting a strong and well-funded campaign to unseat Mayor Joel Daves. Daves is a registered Democrat, but viewed as a non-team player and endorsed Republican U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw in the last election.

Likewise, Democrats expect the next Tampa mayor to be much more help to the party than outgoing Mayor Dick Greco, a Democrat who endorsed George and Jeb Bush.

Republicans may increasingly dominate Hillsborough County, but Tampa remains Democratic. Tampa developer Al Austin, state GOP finance chairman, said it would have been fruitless for a Republican to run.

And he offers a word of caution to Democrats expecting soon to dominate City Halls across Florida.

"All around them are Republicans," Austin said. "There isn't a Democratic mayor that can go to Tallahassee and get anything done if they don't have some Republican friends. They can be Democrats, but they better work with Republicans or else they'll be one-termers."

-- Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727)893-8241 or .

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.