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Mayoral candidates reveal their sugar and vinegar

Tampa candidates laud their political experience or their lack of it as their personalities shine through in a debate.

[Times photo: Thomas Goethe]
Tampa mayoral candidates, from left, Don Ardell, Bob Buckhorn, Pam Iorio, Charlie Miranda and Frank Sanchez debated Saturday night.

By DAVID KARP, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 23, 2003

TAMPA -- Bob Buckhorn held up his campaign platform and offered to give it to one of his opponents for bedtime reading.

Charlie Miranda took a couple of sharp cracks at the missteps of political newcomer Frank Sanchez. "He shot himself in the leg so many times," Miranda said, "he's now wearing steel plates."

But in the middle of Saturday night's televised debate at Middleton High School sat Pam Iorio, sandwiched between two gray-suited men on either side, dressed in vibrant blue and smiling.

Iorio, who enjoys a comfortable lead in the polls, steered clear of the fray. When she had an opportunity to ask a question of another candidate, she turned to the one person on the stage who doesn't have a chance to win, fitness author Don Ardell, and asked a soft question about a physical fitness program in an Arizona city.

The debate, televised live on WTSP-Ch. 10, ranged between moments of sharpness and exchanges of genteel civility.

Council member Buckhorn described himself as a proven leader with a plan. "In order to be the mayor of this city, you have to know this city. You can't just wake up one morning and decide you want to be mayor," he said.

"You know me," Buckhorn told the cameras. "You have known me for 16 years."

City Council chairman Miranda touted his record helping Mayor Dick Greco for eight years. He also promoted himself as a tightwad, someone who will guard the taxpayers' wallets.

"It is not time to make a change in government," Miranda said. "It is not time to take a gamble on someone who is going to need two years of training."

That was a clear shot -- one of several -- at the man to his left, candidate Frank Sanchez.

Sanchez, a political newcomer who had slipped up recently by taking contradictory stances on controversial issues, attempted to turn his missteps into positives. Unlike the other candidates, Sanchez said he wasn't schooled in politics.

"I am not a professional politician, but I do bring a fresh perspective," he said.

Sanchez, a consultant, talked about his business background and his interest in economic development. He promised to bring ideas from bigger cities like Washington, where he worked in the Clinton administration, to his hometown.

He attacked the veteran elected officials onstage, asking why they had not done more to solve Tampa's problems.

Asked about a proposed $12-a-year stormwater tax, Sanchez said, "Why haven't we done something until now?"

Ever steady, Iorio presented herself as someone the voters know and can trust.

"You have always been able to count on me to get the job done," Iorio said.

Semi-serious candidate Ardell, motivational speaker and fitness author, got the most laughs. When the candidates were asked what outgoing Mayor Dick Greco had not accomplished, he said, "I think he ought to take better care of himself."

Ardell, who has raised almost no money, also criticized the more than $1.4-million raised so far by the other candidates.

The debate, moderated by Ch. 10 reporter Mike Deeson, got rolling with pointed questions directed at each candidate.

Sanchez was asked why he had appeared to flip-flop on controversial issues, namely whether the all-male Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla should admit women.

"I believe I was clear," Sanchez said. "If I am guilty of anything, it's not being a professional politician."

He also said people didn't care about this issue, which the press has written so much about.

Iorio was asked if her position on the Krewe had let down women, who might expect more from the only female candidate in the race. Unlike Sanchez, she said that the Krewe should be free to determine its own membership.

"I can best further the cause of women in our society by being elected mayor and being the best mayor in America," Iorio said.

Miranda jabbed at Iorio for jumping into the race in January, after she told voters last year she would remain as election supervisor.

"I don't waver, and I don't change," Miranda said. "I don't say I'm a candidate for something, and then I'm not a candidate, and then I am a candidate."

Iorio laughed. "I think Charlie wishes I was still out," she said. "But I am in."

Iorio said she stayed out of the race last year so she could complete Hillsborough's switch to touchscreen voting machines after the 2000 presidential election.

"I had a job to do," Iorio said. "I am a person who sees through my commitments."

Buckhorn, best known for championing Tampa's lap dance ordinance, was asked about his reputation for turning every issue into a political advantage.

Fighting adult business was about making life better in neighborhoods, not scoring political points, he said.

"People elect me to be a leader," Buckhorn said. "I don't mumble."

Buckhorn also stood out as the only candidate who said he would oppose the proposed new stormwater tax. He was the only candidate who voted no when the Council and mayor decided to re-direct money from the Community Investment Tax, a half-cent sales tax passed in 1996, to a new art museum and bigger zoo, Buckhorn said.

"That goes to the heart of my credibility as a candidate," he said. "If you are going to advocate A and do B, what are you going to do on the big issues?"

That got some dialogue going.

"Mr. Buckhorn," Sanchez said, "this (stormwater) problem was here long before we had a Community Investment Tax, and we did nothing."

Miranda came back by asking Sanchez, who lived elsewhere for 20 years, how he could criticize the Council for what they did while he was out of town.

"Charlie, I feel very fortunate to have been born and raised here. But I feel fortunate to have experiences away from home," Sanchez said. "I bring those experiences back. But I do ask questions."

If the candidates' messages did not move voters Saturday night, they have just 10 days left to change minds. The election is March 4, one week from Tuesday.

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