TAMPA — The Tampa Police Benevolent Association Friday pledged its clout and resources to help former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco's campaign to regain the office he left in 2003.
The union also gave its endorsement in the March 1 city elections to a half-dozen City Council candidates, including current Council members Joseph Caetano and Curtis Stokes.
"We're going to do our best to muster our membership," said Detective Greg Stout, the president of the PBA. "We believe these are the most qualified candidates, not just for the Police Department or the firefighters, but for the entire city of Tampa."
In a vote of officers this week, Greco received 138 votes, or 62 percent of the 222 votes cast by officers of the Tampa Police Benevolent Association. In all, 975 officers were eligible to vote. It was the first time ever that the union had officers vote to decide who would receive its endorsement in the mayor's race.
"We wanted our police officers to give us some direction on who should be leading our city for the next four years," Stout said.
That Greco, who is seeking his fifth term of office, was the clear choice of officers did not surprise Stout.
"Mayor Greco's a hero to us for reinstating the take-home car program in 1997," he said. "He expanded the department's pursuit policy, which clearly began bringing our crime rate down in a rapid manner."
Greco also added officers, expanded police facilities, did much to computerize the department, raised educational requirements and put in place a system to make sure job applicants were fairly evaluated, Stout said.
"No endorsement in the world makes me happier than this one," Greco said. "If there's anybody that I believe in it's the Police Department.
In his previous terms as mayor, he said he always had a police radio in his car and would respond to calls and back up officers at all hours of the night.
"I learned more about this city doing that than practically anything," he said. "I would do it again. It's that important."
Former Tampa City Council member Bob Buckhorn was second in the officers' poll with 51 votes. Ex-police Capt. Marion Lewis received 23 votes, former Hillsborough County Commissioner Rose Ferlita received nine and Tampa City Council Chairman Thomas Scott received one.
Officers voted Wednesday and Thursday after reviewing written answers from six of the seven mayoral candidates who responded to union questions on everything from cost-of-living allowances and pension benefits to the department's chase policy and take-home car program.
In interviews, the union also asked the mayoral candidates how they would choose a new police chief if the job came open.
Greco said in his candidate questionnaire that public safety has always been his top priority.
That said, he added that "at this point, nobody knows what the true financial situation of the city will be."
"You can be guaranteed you will be meeting with me on an ongoing basis and that the decisions reached will be those that we mutually endorse," he added in the questionnaire.
Buckhorn, who has been endorsed by Tampa's firefighters' union, said he respected the vote of the PBA's members.
"The Tampa Police Department is always going to be near and dear to my heart," said Buckhorn, who said he would work for police whether he received the endorsement or not.
Buckhorn noted that crime in Tampa has dropped 56 percent since Greco was mayor.
"We can't go back to those days," he said.
But Greco said his last administration added 145 officers, acquired a new police headquarters and made other improvements that set the stage for what's happened since.
"The cops know who's done what for them, and that's what happened in this vote," he said.
The PBA's endorsements in the City Council races were for Stokes in District 1; Scott Strepina in District 2; Seth Nelson in District 3, Dennis Meyers in District 4, Frank Reddick in District 5 and Caetano in District 7.
"I felt like the police and the firefighters were asking the same questions that the voters were asking when I'm walking door to door," Nelson said. "They want to know about your integrity. They want to know about your character."
No endorsement was made in District 6, where the candidates so far are Kelly Benjamin and Kevin Merchant. Neither responded to the PBA's questionnaire. Stout said that Benjamin, a teacher and journalist who was arrested at the 2008 Republican National Convention while filming protestors, seems to pride himself on his record of civil disobedience.
"That would probably not fit the law enforcement mold," he said.
Benjamin late Friday took issue with that characterization, saying he supports law enforcement and is not an activist or protester.
In an e-mail, Benjamin said he was in Mexico training journalists and reporting for two weeks from a United Nations conference for Free Speech Radio News and WMNF, and did not receive the PBA's questionnaire until he returned. He said he plans to contact Stout about his support for police. He also said the charges from the GOP convention incident have been dropped and he is suing for false arrest.
Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.