Carlton: Pssst ... Wanna buy a Tampa mayor’s election?

Published August 31 2018

Sometimes the world seems a cynical place in which everything has a price if thereís enough cash to pay for it.

But can you really buy a mayoral election?

Tampaís about to find out.

The race to run whatís been called Americaís Next Great City ó the third largest in Florida ó is rarely a dull affair. As witnessed in elections past, a shoo-in candidate might implode, a rock star politician could jump in last minute, or a candidate could make a quip so ill-advised his chances die. Basically, itís bring the popcorn.

Already, the race to replace the reluctantly exiting Bob Buckhorn has that anything-can-happen air about it. One notable contender is a guy whose name a lot of residents only know because itís spelled out in very large letters across the performing arts center downtown. And itís on a dorm at the University of Tampa. And a manatee hospital at ZooTampa.

David Straz, gazillionaire retired banker and philanthropist whose art collection alone is said to run in the millions, is stumping alongside ex-police chief Jane Castor, City Councilman Harry Cohen, former county commissioner Ed Turanchik, City Councilman Mike Suarez, businessman Topher Morrison, political novice LaVaughn King and ó this just in ó Sam Brian Gibbons, grad student and grandson of the legendary congressman. Like I said, never a dull moment.

RELATED: Straz outspends all competitors combined to spread his name in mayorís race

Straz, 75, is an easy target for those who wonder if he just wants one more thing to put his name on ó this time, a whole city. Early on, he promised to outwork his competitors and, if necessary, outspend them.

He wasnít kidding. His campaign is largely self-funded. Heís contributed more than $1.5 million. And he spent close to half a million through July ó more than three times all the other candidates combined. Heís running sophisticated TV ads ó friendly, get-to-know-me spots that presumably were poll-tested, because thatís what you do when you have enough money to do anything you want.

Itís a no-brainer that campaign cash can have big impact. Think Rick Scott for governor.

But isnít a race for mayor ó particularly in this big-little city thatís evolving nicely into its next self ó different?

I say yes, and hereís why: Few city residents show up to vote for mayor oblivious to whom the candidates are, or susceptible to a vaguely pleasant association with a name, which can happen on crowded ballots. This townís way too invested in who they elect March 5. Experience, record, personality, mettle and actual platforms will matter for every candidate, Straz included.

A practical factor: The race is non-partisan, but the town leans Democrat. And Iím betting someoneís going to remind voters that the newly Democratic Straz admitted voting for Trump, calling it a mistake.

Can you buy a mayorship? I ask someone who would know, having been on both the winning and losing sides of it. "My sense is no," says Buckhorn. "That vote for mayor is unlike any other youíll cast. Itís personal. Itís not something people trade away lightly."

Money "can take you from unknown to known," the mayor says. "Does it take you from known to elected? Thatís a quantum leap." To say it non-cynically: Around here, people care whoís their mayor.