TAMPA — A Democratic political consultant who has worked on Bob Buckhorn's campaign for mayor is linked to a group that sent out a mailer attacking mayoral candidate Rose Ferlita before the March 1 primary.
Jonathan Brill owns Engagement Strategies of Tampa, a company that Buckhorn's campaign paid more than $4,300 in January and February for research, according to campaign spending disclosure reports.
That work involved one paid project: calls to voters and a tele-town hall meeting, according to Buckhorn campaign spokeswoman Beth Leytham.
In addition, Brill volunteered to go to a meeting with city officials last week about a possible Buckhorn inauguration when the campaign manager couldn't attend. (Ferlita's campaign also met with the city about inauguration plans.)
Brill also owns Cornerstone Strategic, a company that received nearly $9,500 in November from Less Government Now, a Tampa-based electioneering communications committee that sent out an anti-Ferlita mailer the Saturday before the city's primary on March 1. The flier summarized criticisms of Ferlita made by local newspapers.
In an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times on Monday, Brill said the work he did for Less Government Now had nothing to do with the mayor's race.
"I was a political consultant to Less Government Now during the fall 2010 election cycle," Brill said. He said that work was "unrelated to any candidate in Tampa Bay."
Last fall, Less Government Now, which received funds from the Florida Education Association, sent out mailers against Republican John Thrasher in his state Senate race and reportedly ran robo-calls aimed at siphoning off GOP support in the race for agricultural commissioner.
The mayor's race is officially nonpartisan, but Buckhorn is a Democrat, Ferlita a Republican, and activists in each party have tried to rally support for their candidates in the March 22 runoff.
On Monday, Brill and a representative for Less Government Now said they had nothing to do with a controversial new flier that attacks Ferlita's marital status.
The flier casts doubt on Ferlita's commitment to family values because she's single and describes her as "Unmarried. Unsure. Unelectable."
The flier first surfaced in electronic form late last week and has been e-mailed to campaigns, journalists and political activists.
"I did not have anything to do with producing or distributing that flier," Brill said.
Although the flier lists a return address for Less Government Now, that committee's treasurer, Tracy Cintron, said Monday the group "had absolutely nothing to do" with it. Cintron, a Tampa bar manager and a former staffer for the gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Jim Davis, declined further comment.
Ferlita, a former Tampa City Council member and Hillsborough County commissioner, says the flier is an affront to women who choose to remain single.
"It was awful — awful — that we've come to the point that unmarried women are looked at as not qualified to run this government," Ferlita said during a debate Monday on WFLA-AM 970. "That offended a lot of people."
At this point, Ferlita said she has to take Buckhorn at his word that he had nothing to do with it.
"When we talk about negative campaigning, there are accusations going back and forth, the difference being that I attach my name to what I'm saying, and the ones coming my way are unidentifiable at this point," Ferlita said.
"We weren't involved in it, had nothing to do with it, had no knowledge of it," said Buckhorn, a former Tampa City Council member. "We're not even sure the flier exists. Nobody has gotten one. The mail ID number on it is a fictitious ID number. We don't know where this flier is. We had nothing to do with it. No one has seen it other than sort of mimeographed copies. Are we creating a Trojan horse here to react to an issue?"
The Times received a copy from a consultant in the Ferlita campaign, who received it from a political blogger, who said someone uploaded it anonymously with a comment to his blog.
"I have no clue about whether we've been duped," said blogger Peter Schorsch, executive editor of SaintPetersblog.com. "I have no clue where it came from."
Schorsch, a Buckhorn supporter, said Monday he was trying to track down the source.
Since Thursday, the flier has circulated as an e-mail in political and journalistic circles.
But despite displaying what appears to be a postage-paid permit number in its upper right-hand corner, the flier could not be mailed out as campaign mail because the permit number is not valid, a postal official said.
"If we were presented with these mail pieces, we would not process them, mostly because it's not a valid permit," U.S. Postal Service Tampa spokesman Gary Sawtelle said. "It would not be considered mail."
You might expect this sort of down-and-dirty campaigning to make voter turnout, which was just 22 percent in the primary, even worse. But so far, that doesn't appear to be happening.
On Saturday and Monday, the first two days of early voting, 2,875 people cast ballots in the runoff. Of those, more than half, 1,491, voted at the Jan K. Platt Regional Branch Library in South Tampa.
By comparison, 1,601 voters cast ballots on the first two days of early voting before the March 1 primary. Four years ago, the first two days of early voting for the runoff drew a mere 1,168 voters.
"We're really encouraged by the high turnout on the first day and hope it's a sign of things to come," Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections spokesman Travis Abercrombie said in an e-mail.
Early voting continues through Saturday. Visit votehillsborough.org and click on "Early Voting" for information.