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    The unknown candidate faces tough road in Tampa

    By JOHN HILL, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 9, 2003

    How does an attractive, Harvard-trained Tampa native who worked for two governors and President Clinton raise more than anyone ever has while running for Tampa mayor and still barely make the runoff?

    The answer is Frank Sanchez's dilemma as he heads to the runoff March 25. In the 25 years since he left home, Tampa has become an economic power and a bigger player on the national scene. It is larger, more cosmopolitan and more diverse, and increasingly visible through tourism, its university and professional sports. But local politics in Tampa are still incredibly intimate. That's why Pam Iorio can talk about the same things Sanchez does and take 46 percent in the first-round vote.

    Sanchez's problem was strategic from the start; it had nothing to do with his message. He'd been gone from Tampa, had no name recognition, and would have to outspend his opponents, which he did. But the money and celebs behind Sanchez's campaign only worked to underscore how much the 43-year-old was an unknown in his own town. This image is important, because it has become the defining contrast of the election. In terms of policy, there is little light between Iorio and Sanchez. Both want what any mayor in a growing, regional metropolis would want -- good jobs, transportation, race relations and parks; affordable housing and a vibrant arts scene -- and both have the brains, contacts and personal charm to sell Tampa here and abroad.

    But Sanchez has not brought a comfort level to concerns over who he is. His promise to create jobs, grow the economy and find Tampa's "niche in the world" is drowned out by questions of what he's doing here and why he's running for mayor. People who criticize his campaign as misguided, as many are starting to do, point to Sanchez's ads about mentoring kids or his appearance with the Bucs' Ronde Barber. Their point is not that neither has anything to do with being mayor, but that Sanchez continues to identify himself through the lens of other people. He drops names when what voters want in a mayor is a sense of shared experiences.

    Iorio amassed a head of steam not because her message really differed from Sanchez's but because voters were comfortable that her years in office meant they could worry about their own lives. This is the difficulty Sanchez faces -- selling his "vision" to die-hard runoff voters who historically have connected with the mayor on a far simpler plane. As former county commissioner Ed Turanchik said: "This is a student body president's race." When Sanchez first returned to town, more than a year ago, he would gather supporters and kick around ideas -- what made cities livable, the ridiculous rivalry between Tampa and St. Pete. But when it came to Tuesday's primary, one restaurateur told a Sanchez supporter he would vote for Bob Buckhorn "because Bob's the only one who's visited my restaurant."

    'Paid his dues'

    It will be difficult to craft a winning runoff strategy when the issue for many, as former Mayor Bill Poe said, is whether a candidate has "paid his dues." Iorio's support not only sweeps across racial and economic lines, but she has a strong foundation among those who voted for the first-round losers, Buckhorn and Charlie Miranda. She also dominated in the precincts where turnout was heaviest.

    Indeed, it is arguable that Iorio, not Sanchez, kept Buckhorn from the runoff, because she cut so heavily into his base of black voters. Part of her popularity there stems from Iorio's 10 years as county elections supervisor. She is a symbol in the black community of access to the ballot and therefore to significance in the political process. Iorio understands it; she even wrote about it. "Access to the polling place became the battleground for the harshest blows to black freedom," she wrote in a 2001 piece for the Florida Historical Quarterly, chronicling Tampa's Jim Crow-era whites-only municipal primary. While Buckhorn visited black churches, Iorio, as elections supervisor, drafted districting maps that strengthened the clout of minorities. That attachment to Iorio presents another challenge to Sanchez, for the two city council seats to be decided in the runoff have only black candidates.

    What about Hispanic voters? "Frank's base is not large enough, even with me out of it," Miranda said. Sanchez won the precinct in his neighborhood, near largely Hispanic West Tampa, but Miranda, the longtime council member, held his base among the old, middle-class immigrant vote. "Charlie's following is very loyal to Charlie, and that loyalty doesn't transfer," said School Board member Jack Lamb. "Maybe they'll stay home." County courts clerk Richard Ake said Sanchez would need to focus his efforts on a core of committed voters. "Frank is very charismatic," Ake said, "but I don't know how many undecideds there are at this point."

    Both camps say Sanchez needs to do two things: Refocus an ineffective advertising campaign that has made him look distant and flat. Sanchez also needs a compelling story about what drew him back home. "I was not overwhelmed by the ads, I'll tell you," said one supporter, Tampa attorney Tom Scarritt. He and others saw a shift in the campaign months ago, when a "kitchen cabinet" of local friends and volunteers became increasingly detached from the decisionmaking by senior staff and out-of-town consultants. One good example of how this hurt was Sanchez's flip-flop on the sexism behind Gasparilla.

    Sanchez could make headway, despite all the odds, with a radical change in strategy. His organization is strong but he needs more local people. He also needs to present himself as capable as Iorio of opening up City Hall. Iorio has gotten a free ride on ethics merely because so many supporters of Mayor Dick Greco are ensconced in Sanchez's camp. As an Iorio supporter, School Board member Candy Olson, put it: "I get the sense that, as great as Dick Greco is, there's a lot of stale air at City Hall and (voters) don't see Frank Sanchez as being able to clear it." This is one of those front-porch concerns -- not as glamorous as Cuba trade or biotechnology or broadband or Ronde Barber. Even Buckhorn and Miranda voters might be receptive -- as School Board member Jack Lamb says, "the old voting blocs are gone."

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

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