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    Column

    Tampa mayoral race rests on candidates' strengths and baggage

    By JOHN HILL, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 16, 2003

    There are two ways to explain why, this late in the race, Tampa's mayoral election is still up for grabs. First the charitable view. The four major candidates are competent, well-known and distinctly appealing to powerful constituencies. They have a grasp of politics, can speak on the issues and have nurtured, in different ways, strong community ties that anchor their political base. How else could they have raised $1.4-million collectively by last week? But this race is competitive for far larger reasons. Voters are assessing not only the candidate's strengths, but the considerable baggage each would bring as mayor. Bob Buckhorn has an image as a compulsive opportunist. His broad range of support -- from police and black groups to the Christian right -- is viewed not necessarily as inclusiveness but the product of calculated pandering. Pam Iorio has no experience in city politics. Her hesitance to stake ground on important issues raises questions about whether she's style or substance. Charlie Miranda is seen as the small-town pol who's rough around the edges. His plain-talking style works at City Hall, but imagine him in Washington or New York. Frank Sanchez just returned to town after 20 years -- and it shows. Many believe he is beholden to big-business contributors and unaware of the state of the city.

    Becoming mayor of Tampa used to be so easy. You'd sweep the affluent white neighborhoods of south Tampa and divide the black and Hispanic vote. There were, of course, other ways to carve the pumpkin -- drawing black east Tampa or Hispanics in west Tampa and splitting the south Tampa vote. The unions, cops and the firefighters were good for money and political cover. Television has grown into more of a factor, with the arrival of cable and the ability to focus on individual media markets. Same with the advances made with direct mail. But the point is that the races were always easy to call. The nuances of the candidates rarely played a part because the larger differences were so stark and easier to exploit.

    This race is fluid because voters have serious apprehensions about the candidates. All four, on paper, seem up to the job. Buckhorn and Iorio have been in local politics for almost 20 years; Miranda, even longer. Sanchez, though never elected, has spent his adult life as a political aide in Tallahassee and Washington. Voters generally believe the four are competent; what they are looking at is judgment, character and how the candidate's life experience will translate into governing.

    Many voters are approaching this election by using the strategy test-takers use when flummoxed by a multiple choice. They are choosing favorites by first eliminating the weakest choices.

    This has been reflected consistently in voter preference polls. Though the polls have differed on which two candidates are likely to make a runoff, they have repeatedly shown a high percentage of city voters -- 15 percent or more -- as being undecided in the race. This number is significant, for city voters are well-informed, the candidates are well-known and the race for making the runoff as the final weeks tick away could get down to 2 or 3 percentage points.

    "Their weaknesses -- that's a concern out there," said former Mayor Sandy Freedman. "(Voters) know everybody's strengths, but they also know what their weaknesses are." As a result, Freedman said, the undecided vote right now might be 25 percent. "The race is much more fluid at this point."

    Why flaws matter

    These flaws matter because they're shaping the race, and because they'll encumber whoever wins in March.

    Buckhorn has a serious image problem. A poll conducted in September for the St. Petersburg Times put his unfavorable rating at 33 percent. He has been criticized for his so-called "quality of life" agenda -- a crackdown on strip clubs, prostitution, loitering and other acts that Buckhorn says are precursors to serious crime. While these efforts are applauded by neighborhood groups, his detractors say Buckhorn lacks proportion. They wonder whether he'd have a sense of balance if elected mayor.

    Buckhorn also can be a polarizing figure. He has strong opinions and a far different agenda from what Mayor Dick Greco pursued for eight years. His years as an aide to Freedman, and as a City Council member, give Buckhorn a solid grasp of the city machinery; the worry to some is how much he'd tinker and whether he'd alienate the business community. "I've been the one out there, making the hard votes," he said. "It's easy to hammer on someone who takes positions."

    Iorio cited a public "dissatisfaction" with the field as a reason she entered the race last month. She was a Hillsborough County commissioner and elections supervisor. She has never been identified with city issues. Her critics say Iorio is skating on popularity; she helped institute reforms throughout the state after the 2000 elections debacle. Many believe her Rose Garden strategy is a cover for weakness on specific issues.

    Iorio, for example, has a weaker fix on the personalities at City Hall than Buckhorn or Miranda. She is candid about needing time to assess which city departments need improvement. It's unclear who would comprise her inner circle, how she'd balance the city's mundane needs with a larger vision and whether her inexperience with the bureaucracy would compromise her ability to govern. These are critical questions for voters who take great pride in their city identity. Iorio, at least, understands the concerns. "If anyone knows a community," she said, "it's the supervisor of elections. I do know the people in city government."

    Miranda is a longtime council member with a strong base in heavily Hispanic west Tampa. He has succeeded in politics because of a history of being courteous, loyal, responsive and fair. But the flip side of the old-world values is that Miranda is seen by many as provincial. He has worked to dispel that image since 1999, when he won a citywide seat and started taking on broader issues, from Bay area water supply to regional cooperation.

    Miranda's problem is that he's running against more effective communicators. He has an important agenda -- making City Hall accountable -- but it's something voters already expect. Good mayors not only do the audits on time and maintain the fleet of garbage trucks; they raise expectations. Miranda is seen as ambivalent about raising the visibility of Tampa. "I'm a manager. Am I a visionary? Yes, I can think and look beyond the windows and tomorrow. But I'm a manager."

    Sanchez, by contrast, talks almost exclusively about Tampa's profile and prospects for trade. He served as an aide to a variety of Democratic officeholders, including then-President Clinton. Sanchez recently returned to his hometown of Tampa. He has been criticized for his big-business ties and for his lack of experience in elected office. Many people -- even his own supporters -- don't know Sanchez very well. He has added to concerns about his naivete by showing, at times, a poor grasp of Tampa.

    Sanchez is arguably the most charismatic of the bunch, and his personal appeal might induce voters to give him the benefit of the doubt. "If you take what I've done away from Tampa, and add it to my rootedness in Tampa -- it's a perfect mix," he said. But Iorio drew voters away from Sanchez when, at the last minute, she entered the race, reflecting how important a record in Tampa is to city voters. The problem for Sanchez is that his biggest weakness is something that charm and campaign money can't overcome. He is the only major candidate who has never represented the people of Tampa.

    Former mayors, council members and others expect that the closing days before the March 4 election will be the defining period in the race. The election is finally breaking through weeks of nonstop distractions -- from the Bucs' Super Bowl victory and the space shuttle disaster to the escalating threat of terrorism and war with Iraq. The candidates are dropping mail, airing ads on TV and appearing at a crush of mayoral forums.

    "The more people know about the candidates, the harder it is to choose," said former Mayor Bill Poe. "That's why people are having a hard time coming to a conclusion. At least two or three candidates are known by the average person. By and large this group is better known than most others . . . and I think people are trying to look harder at them."

    -- John Hill is a Times editorial writer in Tampa.

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