The Tampa Bay Rays, needing a critical "yes'' vote from Pinellas County commissioners this summer, have hired a college pitcher-turned-lawyer whose political connections reach far into the courthouse.
Clearwater land use attorney Ed Armstrong joined the Rays' lineup in May — not because the team needed legal work, but because it needed access.
Armstrong, 51, has contributed both cash and savvy advice to help elect most of the seven-member commission. He counsels commissioners on everything from policy to media relations, and he represents developers before them.
"There is nobody that has more influence than Ed Armstrong when it comes to changing public policy," St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse said.
But Armstrong says he wields no special clout.
"A lot of it is just a function of listening and observing," he said. "These folks are very open people. If you ask them what their public policy concerns are, they will tell you."
And some commissioners say there may be a limit to what Armstrong can do for the Rays.
"I really feel like we have been backed into a corner, and I don't like that," said Commissioner Karen Seel, who knows Armstrong from their days at Clearwater's Oak Grove Junior High School. "And even if they've hired Ed Armstrong, that's not going to change."
• • •
County Commissioner Ken Welch was one of several people who suggested the Rays consider hiring Armstrong, according to the team.
Welch said he watched with dismay last month as team executives unveiled a financing plan for a new waterfront ballpark to the St. Petersburg City Council. The Rays were clumsy, Welch thought, in trying to pull the levers of power.
Afterward, Welch called the team. Get serious and talk to the right players, he said, or you're done. And another thing: you could use an Ed Armstrong.
The next day, May 16, the Rays called Armstrong.
"We want two things" from Armstrong, Rays senior vice president Michael Kalt said. "Somebody to communicate and advocate for us and somebody who can get us into a room with people so that we can make our case."
That's Armstrong's game. But he, commissioners and some political pros say his reputation as a puppet-master is absurd.
No elected official, they say, will put principle aside just because Armstrong now is on the Rays' payroll.
It's "not tough" to separate Armstrong's past support from the question at hand, Welch said.
"You have to look at the issue and make your vote on that issue and based on the facts of the case," he said.
Commissioner John Morroni agrees.
"Oh, it's totally objective," he says, even as he acknowledges Armstrong's access in the next breath. "Even when we go to lunch, we take turns paying. He realizes that you can't be with him on every issue, and that's fine."
• • •
Raised in Clearwater, Armstrong pitched his way to the University of Maryland on a baseball scholarship. Following law school at Vanderbilt University, he came home and in 1982 joined the powerhouse law firm now known as Johnson, Pope, Bokor, Ruppel and Burns.
In politics, Armstrong sizes up potential candidates and opens the donation floodgates when he likes what he sees.
His chief clients have been powerful development interests. But in 1999, he took on a client that raised some eyebrows: the Church of Scientology. It was not to do legal work, but to help the church make connections and become more accepted in Clearwater.
His services aren't cheap. Lou Kwall, another well-known Clearwater attorney, said for a job like representing the Rays, Armstrong charges $400 to $600 an hour. Armstrong wouldn't confirm or deny that range.
Though he has supported and is friendly with all seven county commissioners, he's closest to Welch, Susan Latvala, Ronnie Duncan and Seel.
Armstrong's friendships and donations "mean access," said political consultant Mary Repper. "They mean the ability to pick up the phone and talk to these commissioners like nobody else can."
As part of the new ballpark's financing, the Rays want the county to dedicate a 1 percent hotel bed tax to pay off the debt required to build the waterfront stadium for 25 to 30 years. In today's dollars, the value of that decision is estimated at $100-million. The commission may vote as soon as July.
Armstrong brings skills as a mediator honed over decades to the process. In the political realm, he's regarded as highly competent — an honest broker who sticks to his word and understands compromise.
"These are sincere folks making what they believe to be sincere policy decisions," Armstrong said. "It's never personal on their part, and it's never personal on my part."
In addition to the hotel tax, the Rays need support from the St. Petersburg City Council for a referendum in November asking city voters whether they want a ballpark on their waterfront.
But without county support to dedicate the tax, the deal is dead.
Despite Armstrong's influence, some commissioners say it may be too late and the ballpark plan is difficult to justify given shrinking tax revenue.
"It'll be tough," County Commission Chairman Bob Stewart said. "If you wait until the eighth inning to bring in your relief pitcher, it's best to bring that pitcher in when you have a lead."