TAMPA — Had John Dingfelder garnered another 438 votes during last month's municipal elections, the last six weeks would have been spent basking in the glow of a third term on Tampa's City Council, instead of slogging towards Tuesday’s runoff election.
Instead, the 62-year-old political veteran has continued collecting endorsements, filling his evening with appearances at town hall meetings, candidate debates and community gatherings, where the veteran attorney could argue his case for why, in this election, "experience counts."
Blocking his path to victory is 37-year-old Stephen Lytle, a corporate human relations manager. Lytle has found a groundswell of support among voters 30 or younger, polling data shows. And he has centered his message on the vitality he could bring to a city government full of insiders.
Lytle has also capitalized on Dingfelder's career as a city councilman by highlighting the many ways Tampa has changed since his opponent last held office. At a debate hosted by the Palmetto Beach and Ybor City neighborhoods earlier this month, Lytle deftly undermined Dingfelder's examples of years he spent balancing the city's budget during the recession by contrasting the $700-$800 million budget of the 2010's to the city's current budget of more than $1 billion.
When Dingfelder mentioned a plan to increase ridership by offering free rides on the city's TECO Line Streetcar for a year or so, Lytle countered by reminding him that the streetcar began offering free fares last October.
"It's already free, and we've seen a lot of increase in ridership this year alone because it is free," Lytle said.
While both candidates have campaigned under similar progressive agendas — each supporting better infrastructure, mass transit and neighborhood advocacy at City Hall — Dingfelder and Lytle have ramped up efforts to win over undecided voters through name recognition and political stumping.
Still, Dingfelder seems to have outmaneuvered the political upstart in nearly every aspect of his campaign. Dinfelder’s mailers include no fewer than 42 endorsements from local politicians, community leaders and business owners, including Mayor Bob Buckhorn, state representatives Shawn Harrison and Susan Valdes, and county commissioners Mariella Smith and Pat Kemp. Dingfelder has also gotten backing from the region's three newspapers and local fire and police unions.
"Like my opponent Stephen, I started out as a neighborhood president, that was about 15 to 20 years ago, and then my life went on," Dingfelder said. "Experience counts. It's experience that will let you know there's no risk involved, that you had an opportunity to watch me for 8 years spent serving you on city council.
"And that's one of the reasons why I decided to get back in, Stephen. Because people admired my work," Dingfelder said.
The most recent reports available show that Dingfelder’s campaign raised an additional $20,000 in the finance filing period from March 23 to April 5, dwarfing the extra $650 contributed to Lytle's campaign in that time period. In fact, Dingfelder is the only city council candidate in the runoff election with campaign contributions exceeding six figures — a total of just under $176,400.
Lytle’s total contributions have hovered just under $69,500, though none of that came from his own pocket. Dingfelder's campaign coffers were boosted by $50,000 of his own money, records show, along with multiple donations from family members totaling thousands of dollars.
In a crowded four-way race, Lytle barely won 20 percent of the total vote, compared to Dingfelder's 49 percent during the March 5 election.
In the most recent public poll figures, released Tuesday by St. Pete Polls, Dingfelder scored support from 54 percent of the survey’s respondents, compared to Lytle’s 26 percent. But the poll also showed that 22 percent of all 552 respondents remained undecided between the two candidates.
Lytle has focused on his involvement with the city's current leadership and $1 billion budget — both as president of the South Seminole Heights Civic Association and in leadership roles on the City of Tampa's Public Nuisance Abatement Board and Citizens Budget Advisory Committee.
Dingfelder served on council under then-mayor Pam Iorio from 2003 to 2010, when he vacated his south Tampa District 4 seat to run for Hillsborough County Commission. Dingfelder, an attorney, lost that race to District 1 County Commissioner Sandy Murman. He’s since served as a board member for multiple government and non-profit agencies, but his current involvement in city government is limited to his spot as an alternate on the Variance Review Board.
"John's served on city council, he's right, but he served before all these good things happened, the policies, these fixes," Lytle said. "You have a choice: to go backwards and elect politicians who have been there and done that or you have a choice to elect change, a choice to move Tampa forward and a choice to make sure that we have a brighter future together."
Contact Anastasia Dawson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.