Rising Democratic star a tough foe

The former pro wrestler knows what it takes to win challenging political campaigns.

Published March 16, 2007

A new Democratic campaign star is emerging, and Republicans better beware. This guy used to wear a hockey mask and wield an ax.

Mitch Kates, formerly "Jason the Terrible" on the professional wrestling circuit, is winning considerable buzz among Florida Democrats after having just won his second tough Tampa Bay race in which his candidate was outspent more than four-to-one.

"Mitch was really an energizing and inspiring campaign manager," said Mary Mulhern, who last week beat City Council member Shawn Harrison in a nonpartisan race for a citywide seat.

That win came on the heels of Kates' managing Democrat Charlie Justice's defeat of Kim Berfield in Florida's most competitive state Senate race.

Kates, 42, honed his competitive instincts as a college wrestling champ turned pro wrestler. After narrowly losing his own race for a Pittsburgh City Council seat in 2003, he worked for John Kerry and then in a longshot Boston mayoral campaign before getting tapped to manage Justice's campaign.

He demonstrated in his last two races a knack for delivering precisely targeted messages despite limited resources, and for a willingness to throw punches when necessary.

"I have a very competitive nature, all those years wrestling. ... When I do things, I take it very seriously. Yeah, I have a good time. But I don't like to lose. I try to get people motivated," said the nearly 6-foot-6 Kates, whose motto is "Think big."

At Mulhern's victory party last week, Kates slipped into his old Jason the Terrible bluster, dropping any pretense of nonpartisanship, and really annoying a disapproving Mulhern, who insists her campaign was entirely nonpartisan.

"This is the new Democratic team and the new Democratic Party in this part of the country! And people better start getting used to it!," Kates shouted. "We know how to win, we know how to organize, we know how to spend our money wisely!"

Justice called Kates a "huge factor" in his win.

"He had a marketing business before the wrestling and politics," Justice said. "He's got a mind for marketing and themes. It makes it fun for the team. If it catches hold and the community actually picks on that, it gets the volunteers and the supporters excited. That's huge."

In the itinerant world of Democratic campaign operatives, Kates, a St. Petersburg resident, would like to think he's found a home in the bay area, but for now he's unemployed. Democrats are talking him up to help the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee go after Rep. C.W. Bill Young's congressional seat in 2008.

Taking on a popular 37-year-incumbent would be a daunting job. But Jason the Terrible likes to think big.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727893-8241 or asmith@sptimes.com.