TAMPA — For Mike Suarez, a campaign focused on connecting with voters paid off Tuesday.
Suarez swept past his opponent, bank executive and current City Council member Curtis Stokes, in the race for the citywide District 1 seat with nearly 61 percent of the vote.
The independent insurance agent and former chairman of the Hillsborough Democratic Party spent most of his grass roots campaign communicating to residents his desire to help.
"We did it by walking door to door and chasing the early votes and vote-by-mail people," Suarez said from his victory party at Rick's on the River. "Most people realized that we were really trying to show them that you can trust government again."
Early on, Suarez, 46, declared a plan to visit individual neighborhoods each month if elected. At forums, he brought up his desire to handle city issues, such as the debacle of high water bills, by putting residents first.
"I asked people, 'What is it that the city is doing right? What is it that the city is doing wrong, and how can we make it better?' " he said.
Suarez entered the runoff election with the backing of numerous local unions, organizations and individuals including the Tampa firefighters union and his three former opponents in the primary: Rick Barcena, Guido Maniscalco and Tom Slaughter.
Even a past employer of his, former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, made automated calls in support a day before the election.
But Suarez attributed most of his success to his team's work, especially in the areas of South and West Tampa.
"We worked harder than him (Stokes)," Suarez said. "We put our efforts where the votes were."
Before the runoff election, Stokes said he hoped the fact that he lives in New Tampa would help sway voters in the area. But on Tuesday night, many of precincts in North Tampa reported a victory for Suarez.
"I don't know if they saw the importance of having a representative from their area on the City Council," Stokes said Tuesday.
On the campaign trail, Stokes, 42, agreed with Suarez on many points. He emphasized his experience working with budgets and volunteering in the community as well as his leadership skills earned while serving as head of the Hillsborough County NAACP.
In July, both candidates had applied to be appointed to the City Council seat vacated by Linda Saul-Sena. Stokes got the position, but took criticism early in the race for his decision to run for election despite saying on his application that he wouldn't.
Stokes will serve one last week in the position.
As for Suarez, the next step will come April 1 when he is sworn in to his new seat on the City Council.
As a council member, Suarez said, he plans to address street flooding, use his expertise as an insurance agent to examine the city's insurance plan and locate departments the city could merge with the county to increase efficiency and save money.
He plans to support small businesses by developing a low-interest loan program to help with expansion and hiring.
"We want to make Tampa a more livable place," he said. "That has been the emphasis all along."
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374.