TAMPA — For months, five candidates battling for the South Tampa City Council seat blurred together with many similar positions on the city's pressing issues. But when three of those candidates failed to make it past the March 1 election, the runoff race sharpened considerably with two distinctive choices.
Harry Cohen, 40, is an experienced lawyer who knows the workings of governments and budgets and brings a cautious, informed approach to decisionmaking. Cohen is the candidate with endorsements from the Tampa firefighters union and two former opponents.
"I think I've laid out a very clear agenda of what I see as the priorities for the next City Council, and I think if you look at the organizations and newspapers supporting my campaign, they see I have the skill set of delivering what I say I will do, (such as) going through the budget line-by-line and watching what we're spending."
Julie Jenkins, 49, is a member of parent-teacher and neighborhood associations. She founded crime watch groups that helped clean up north Hyde Park in the 1990s and is a travel industry executive who believes boosting Tampa tourism is one way out of the economic doldrums. Jenkins is the candidate with chili and hot dog cookoffs, "Bowling for Julie" events and "Moms in Minivans" campaigning for her.
"People are seeing the difference from someone who has grass roots support vs. someone who has been in the governmental sector for a few years," she said.
There's no incumbent in the District 4 race to represent a district that includes Davis Islands, historic Hyde Park and Palma Ceia because current council member Yvonne Yolie Capin is running for an at-large seat. During the March 1 municipal election, Cohen earned 44 percent of votes but fell short of the majority needed to avoid a runoff. Jenkins received nearly 29 percent of votes. The runoff is March 22.
For six years, Cohen was the chief deputy to Hillsborough County Clerk of the Circuit Court Pat Frank before he resigned in January to focus on his campaign. He is running for elected office for the first time, and said his experience at the clerk's office gives him an edge. He helped cut its budget by 15 percent about two years ago, and said he would prune city spending in the same way, considering cost savings with furloughs, pay freezes, retirement and health benefit changes, fewer positions, and limits to sick and vacation leave payouts.
He is against raising taxes and said there's no other choice as Tampa's property tax base shrinks from lower assessments. While attracting new businesses is a goal, Cohen said, the next City Council must first tackle shrinking city revenues.
"Anyone who goes out there and says, 'I'm going to create jobs,' is really not giving voters their due," he said. "Voters understand that City Council members cannot just create jobs with a magic wand."
Jenkins, who has held sales and marketing positions for AirTran Airways, Holiday Inn and Virgin Atlantic Airways and helps run a family business, said she wants to use her marketing chops to strengthen tourism and increase the number of national conventions in Tampa. She ran unsuccessfully for a citywide seat in 2007.
Like Cohen, she said the next City Council can't promise huge new projects. But she said the city can strengthen its "bread and butter" sector of tourism and improve on it at a time when the Republican National Convention comes to town next year and the federal government eases travel restrictions to Cuba. Tampa International Airport will host direct flights to the country for the first time in nearly 50 years, airport officials announced last week.
"When you're on this campaign trail, everyone talks about this and that and about bringing bio (or green) jobs here," she said. "Let's get back to the basics. I've been bringing tourists to the city of Tampa for years. What people forget is tourism has been No. 1 for the state of Florida forever."
That's why Jenkins said she would not cut any of the tourism or convention budget from the city next year, and leave untouched the money for police and fire services.
Cohen also would protect money for fire and police services, and said he wouldn't touch money for roads and sidewalk improvements since the city needs to do more to protect bicyclists and pedestrians.
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or email@example.com.