tampabay.com

Truckin' the campaign trail

He isn't headed for a fire, but hopes a retired firetruck will take him to the County Commission.

By JEFF TESTERMAN
Published August 19, 2006


TAMPA - Don Kruse dreamed up his campaign slogan - "Put out the Fire!" - when he kept seeing tax dollars going up in smoke.

Then, at a local auto auction, Kruse discovered the perfect vehicle to get his campaign message out to the public: a 33,000-pound, 210-horsepower firetruck.

It took three bids, the last one for $5,000 on eBay in March, but Kruse finally got the firetruck he conspicuously drives to debates and other campaign stops in his run for the Hillsborough County Commission.

The travel is slow the 1976 Ford Pierce truck's top speed is 65 miles an hour, expensive (the Pierce gets just eight miles per gallon of diesel fuel) and uncomfortable (there's a small fan but no air conditioning, sparking complaints over makeup meltdowns from Kruse's wife, Rita).

But Kruse loves it.

"It's a collector's item. It's making a big impact on my life," said Kruse, 46, sales manager for Bill Currie Ford. "I bought it for the campaign. You have to get your message out to the people in the most efficient and effective manner possible."

Kruse outbid 20 other firetruck enthusiasts to buy his engine from the Hellam, Pa., Fire Department., the original owner, which had rolled up 17,280 miles on the vehicle. He and his brother-in-law, a retired Tampa firefighter, flew up to pick it up.

Kruse knew it was destiny the minute he saw his new toy. The truck is No. 21, the same as Kruse's winning bid.

After a quick training session, including getting operational details for the 1,000-gallon-per-minute pumper (you know, in case local government is burning up bushels of tax dollars), Kruse began the drive back to Tampa, consuming 22 hours and $454 worth of diesel fuel.

Now, he parks his firetruck in front of his car dealership during the day, drives it to campaign events, then parks it at his Town 'N Country home at night.

Kruse acknowledges parking around town is a problem. When he arrived at the Times building for an interview with the newspaper's editorial board, he was denied entrance to the adjacent lot. He found a lot that admitted his firetruck four blocks away, but charged him for two of the $5 spaces.

Kruse then hoofed it to the appointment, arriving with sweat pouring from his brow and a request to delay his interview momentarily: "Mind if I get a drink of water?" he asked. " I don't have any AC."

Signs showing Kruse pouring water from a fire hose on to flaming tax dollars adorn the fire truck, emblematic of his vow to cut waste from county spending.

In the Republican primary for the District 1 commission seat, Kruse faces Tampa City Council member Rose V. Ferlita, civil engineer Gary Santti and sales consultant Brad Swanson. The winner will face Mary Mulhern, the owner of a graphic arts business, in the general election.

Kruse checked with elections officials and was told he doesn't have to claim his firetruck expense on his campaign report if he intends to keep it after the election.

He does. Kruse is already designing a building behind his home for the vehicle, and thinks the truck will be a regular at parades and fundraisers.

If Kruse's platform is opposition to government extravagance and waste, is a gas-guzzling, $5,000 fire truck the appropriate campaign symbol? Shouldn't Kruse be riding a bicycle to campaign events?

Kruse had to think about that question for a bit.

"Five thousand dollars would buy you newspaper ads for maybe a week, and this really sticks in people's minds," he replied, after mulling the question for a day. "Besides, someone has already offered me $15,000 for it. What if government operated like that?"

Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or at testerman@sptimes.com.