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 there’s enough cash to pay for it.

But can you really buy a mayoral election?

Tampa’s about to find out.

The race to run what’s been called America’s Next Great City — the third largest in Florida — 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, it’s 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 it’s spelled out in very large letters across the performing arts center downtown. And it’s 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 — this just in — 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 mayor’s race

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

He wasn’t kidding. His campaign is largely self-funded. He’s contributed more than $1.5 million. And he spent close to half a million through July — more than three times all the other candidates combined. He’s running sophisticated TV ads — friendly, get-to-know-me spots that presumably were poll-tested, because that’s what you do when you have enough money to do anything you want.

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

But isn’t a race for mayor — particularly in this big-little city that’s evolving nicely into its next self — different?

I say yes, and here’s 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 town’s 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 I’m betting someone’s 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 you’ll cast. It’s personal. It’s 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? That’s a quantum leap." To say it non-cynically: Around here, people care who’s their mayor.