TAMPA — As the deadline to run for office approached Friday, the race for the District 3 at-large City Council seat seemed set — four relatively unknown candidates, each with a realistic shot at victory.
Then, in the final hours, the game changed. Chris Hart, a local political heavyweight six years removed from the spotlight, stepped back into it and started swinging.
"I didn't know anyone who was experienced in the council race. I kept seeing names coming up, but they were all people who I had no reference to or felt comfortable with to help lead our City Council," said Hart, a 66-year-old former Hillsborough County commissioner who paid the $2,500 qualifying fee to enter the citywide District 3 race. "We need people with experience and proven leadership to get things done for our community."
On March 1, Hart will face off against attorney Seth Nelson, physician Jason Wilson, green business consultant Michael Ciftci and retired business owner Yvonne Yolie Capin, who last year was appointed to the vacant District 4 seat representing South Tampa.
Hart served the maximum eight years as a county commissioner from 1994 to 2002. This will be his third candidacy since then; he ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2003 and county clerk of courts in 2004. He cited family matters as the reason for his last-minute entrance this year.
Patrick Manteiga, local political consultant and publisher of the trilingual community newspaper La Gaceta, said Hart's name recognition, particularly in South Tampa, should give him an advantage in the race, which is expected to have a low turnout.
Although Hart acknowledged that he is probably the best-known candidate, he said he is the candidate of change who would work at the local level with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. Rick Scott.
"We can't continue on the path we're on now. We need to take a different road," he said. "People have voted for a change at the state level. That can't just happen there; that's got to happen here as well at home."
While Capin, Nelson, and Wilson largely welcomed their new opponent, Ciftci's campaign said in a statement: "We all respect and appreciate Mr. Hart's service a decade ago. However, the voters of Tampa are crying out for a new way of doing business, because we deserve better! Our campaign will not be affected by Mr. Hart's half-hearted late arrival to this race for Tampa's future."
Hart said his campaign will focus on an effort to collect from residents "100 great ideas for Tampa," a plan he calls GIFT.
After the election, he said, "We're going to take those to City Hall and ask the mayor and the City Council to take a look at those ideas and see where there's merit and what we can implement."
Manteiga expects the race to end with a runoff election, which will happen if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote on March 1.
With the addition of a fourth male candidate, Manteiga predicted that Capin will stand out as a woman and earn a place in the runoff, with the other four candidates fighting to face her.
Still, with the expected low turnout — Manteiga predicted 45,000 voters — any candidate with 10,000 to 12,000 votes should earn a spot in the runoff.
"So when you're talking about that small of a number," Manteiga said, "it's anybody's game."
Jack Nicas can be reached at (813)226-3401 or [email protected]