Davis: Bipartisan advice

Published October 15, 2006

When Jim Davis was asked recently who has his ear when it comes to Florida business and economic policy, he fired off a name without hesitation.

Frank Morsani.

The millionaire auto dealer turned philanthropist who 20 years ago tried, without success, to bring baseball to Tampa Bay.

And he's a Republican, no less.

"He's just somebody I have tremendous respect for," Davis said. "I think he knows what's good for people and businesses in our state."

Principled and determined, Morsani, 75, is a familiar name in and out of business circles. A longtime Tampa Bay area car dealer, Morsani and his wife, Carol, are also major contributors to local arts and education institutions, something that ties in well with Davis' theme of improving public education.

In June, the Morsanis donated $10-million to the University of South Florida, a gift that will help build a six-story patient care center, a football practice complex and a women's softball stadium.

"We just think you have to put a lot back," Frank Morsani said at the time. "We'd rather be doing this than anything we can think of."

The couple divide their time between their two Pasco properties: one on 200 acres outside Land O'Lakes, and the other about 15 miles north, where they raise about 265 head of cattle.

But while Morsani has a knack for selling cars, luring baseball teams is a different matter.

Baseball fans remember Morsani for his failed bid to bring Major League baseball to the Tampa Bay area in the early 1980s, an effort that helped push him into bankruptcy.

Davis said he also seeks economic advice from outside the Tampa Bay area, especially from those who work in areas of concern to a state with obvious growing pains.

Davis mentioned Alvin "Pete" Carpenter, retired vice chairman of railroad giant CSX Transportation, and Robert Mandell, 58, president and CEO of Greater Construction Corp., a residential development company based in Casselberry.

Carpenter, 64, a Republican who lives in Jacksonville, is credited with turning around relationships between union workers and management, which at times had been rocky.

CSX officials said Carpenter did that by launching a "social compact" with all employees.

Carpenter, Davis said, is also keenly aware of the many transportation issues facing the state. And the same is true with Mandell, Davis said, when it comes to issues of real estate development.

"He sees what's going on in the housing industry," Davis said of Mandell, a Democrat. "Managing growth is a critical issue."

Greater Homes was started in 1965 by Lester Zimmerman and Lester Mandell, Robert Mandell's father. Over the years, the company has built more than 17,000 houses in Central Florida.

Robert Mandell gave up practicing law in Punta Gorda in 1983 to join the home builder. He and four partners bought the company in 1998.

Mandell has served on the transition teams of Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and former Gov. Lawton Chiles, and is a former chairman of the Florida Environmental Regulation Commission.

But the key to success for Florida's economy, Davis said, is something he's seen firsthand: building a highly skilled work force by strengthening the link between education and jobs.

"I talked with a Tampa plumber the other day who left his original job, went back to school, and is now working on his plumber's license," Davis said. "He said he learned the trade, but he also learned how to run a business.

"That's what we really need more of."

Tom Zucco can be reached at zucco@sptimes.com or 727 893-8247.

Democrat Jim Davis and Republican Charlie Crist each turn to a handful of friends and associates in the business world as sounding boards during their gubernatorial showdown. Developers, attorneys and even a prominent Tampa auto dealer weigh in on key business issues.