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Familiarity, experience a winning formula for some Tampa City Council candidates

TAMPA — In this time of economic uncertainty, Tampa voters on Tuesday showed a clear preference for candidates with on-the-job experience or recognizable names.

Five of the 11 City Council candidates who were either elected outright or made it to a March 22 runoff election have been council members at one time. Another candidate was a former Hillsborough County commissioner.

"The public, I think, especially in these times, are looking for someone who's been there, done that and done it with honor and understanding," said incumbent Charlie Miranda, winner of the District 6 seat representing West Tampa. "They're taking less of a risk."

"From a general perspective, they went with experience," added Frank Reddick, who returned to the District 5 seat in east Tampa that he was appointed to in 2006 but later lost during an election. "It resonated with voters in the district that experience does count."

Both Miranda and Reddick as well as Mary Mulhern won a majority of votes over opponents who had no local public office experience. In two other races, council members Curtis Stokes and Yvonne Yolie Capin — both running for different district seats than they are in now — made the runoff.

On Tuesday's ballot there was just one candidate with council experience, District 7 incumbent Joseph Caetano, whom voters rejected.

Caetano, a salon owner, was dogged by a history of foreclosures, bankruptcies and lawsuits. His North Tampa district had the lowest turnout in the city — 14 percent — leading some to believe that the voters who did go to the polls cared enough to do their homework on the candidates.

"Perhaps there was more attentive voters who showed up," said Linda Saul-Sena, a former council member and veteran of six elections.

Generally, Saul-Sena said, known names typically win the most municipal votes.

"It's hard to say whether it's stability or name recognition," she said. "I think there's a small cadre of people who pay attention to City Council meetings and how different members vote, but I think most voters have a much more superficial relationship with council."

Patrick Manteiga, editor of Tampa's 89-year-old La Gaceta newspaper, said it's likability, believability and accessibility that carry the most weight in Tampa elections.

"I'd say 60 to 70 percent of all these races are personality," he said. "People's perception of your personality."

But Manteiga said that doesn't always hold true considering the biggest name in the election — Dick Greco — finished third in the mayoral contest.

"I didn't see anything here that really gives me a trend of what voters are looking for," he said.

Other candidates in the runoffs, such as insurance agent Mike Suarez, sales and marketing executive Julie Jenkins and online salesman and former public access television producer Charles Perkins, have not worked in local government and bucked the name-recognition theory.

Tuesday's results puzzled Gwen Miller, the current citywide District 1 council member who can't run again due to a term limit. She had predicted other outcomes. Having campaigned in four city elections, she said, name recognition is most important.

Still, she added, there's only one surety to winning in Tampa, a big city that still retains its small-town political workings: beating the streets and pressing palms.

"Really getting out there," she said. "You need to knock on doors, constantly reminding them that you need them there. If you don't, they're not going. The turnout's always low, especially in city races, they're always low."

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Familiarity, experience a winning formula for some Tampa City Council candidates 03/02/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 2, 2011 11:01pm]
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