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Rose Ferlita seeks to serve as her hometown's mayor

TAMPA — People who know Rose Ferlita know this: She is warm and saucy, calling friends "baby" and letting the F-word fly.

She lives in Hyde Park with her beloved rescue dogs, Hal and Murray, and is likely to stay longer on a voter's doorstep if a pet appears.

She is both a workaholic and a night owl, a part-time CVS pharmacist who fires off e-mails at hours when most people sleep.

And she fights.

Over the years, she has been at odds with Mayor Pam Iorio, fellow City Council members and county commissioners, other Republicans, staffers, developers and neighborhood groups — even her own mother, who once campaigned against Ferlita in the midst of a family dispute.

"She can be very tough," Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe said. "If she thinks it's wrong, she'll vote loudly, 'no.' She's very clear on where she stands."

Now Ferlita, a 65-year-old community activist turned elected official, seeks her biggest political prize yet: the chance to serve as mayor of the city where her family has lived for three generations.

The straight-shooting, scotch-drinking, steak-eating Tampa native will square off March 1 against a popular four-time mayor and three other men with long records of civic involvement.

On the campaign trail, Ferlita knows how to work a crowd with smiles, hugs and kisses. In stump speeches, she promises to make hard decisions, but offers few specifics about what she would do as mayor.

"Now more than ever, you need to have a mayor with the experience to know. I have that," she said at a political forum last month. "Experience to know, courage to lead. The integrity to do the right thing."

• • •

Ferlita didn't seek public office until age 53, but her father planted the seeds of service when she was just a girl.

She remembers a customer with no money arriving at the Ybor City bakery founded by her Sicilian grandfather.

Ferlita watched her father pull Cuban bread from the steel racks where they cooled, pushing back the cracked loaves and wrapping only those in brown paper that he deemed perfect. She asked why he went to such trouble for someone who couldn't pay.

"Whatever you put in, you take out," Joseph Ferlita said in broken English. "Whatever you do, you do right."

Dinner conversation in the Ferlita household in Ybor City was a trilingual mix of Italian, Spanish and English. Ferlita's mother, Lillian, hailed from West Tampa. She stressed discipline and education to her two children, Rose and older brother Frank.

Rose Ferlita attended the Academy of the Holy Names on a tuition discount. She earned mostly good grades but ran afoul of the nuns for talking too much. She was selected student council president and prom queen.

The only time she lived outside Tampa was to go to college. Ferlita studied at Loyola University in New Orleans before transferring to the University of Florida to finish her bachelor's degree in pharmacy. She was one of few female students in the program.

She was engaged once as a young woman, but never married or had children. She says she is not currently dating anyone.

She worked 17 years as a pharmacist for Eckerd drugstores. It was her next career move that cemented her identity as a community leader.

• • •

In 1984, Ferlita opened Rose Drugs on a rough stretch of Nebraska Avenue.

The independent pharmacy served for two decades as a neighborhood hub where customers gathered on Saturdays for pastries and Cuban coffee. They played with Murray the cocker spaniel while Ferlita filled prescriptions.

She knew everyone's names and their stories. She took time to explain the details of their medications or to just listen to them vent. Elderly customers received extra attention.

"I used to tell her it was like Cheers in Seminole Heights," said Jim McAlister, a paramedic who worked as a part-time pharmacy tech in the early 1990s. "She was very special to my father, the way she took care of him. Before he passed away, the thing he looked forward to was a trip to Rose Drugs."

Ferlita welcomed HIV patients to her pharmacy when others shunned them. The medical community looked to her as a resource for patients who couldn't afford drugs.

"If all else failed, you could call Rose and she would help you," said Dede Craig, a nurse practitioner and former neighbor. "She was one of the early pioneers working with persons with HIV."

Boogie's Bar prompted Ferlita to take action beyond her pharmacy. The nightclub drew hundreds of people on weekends. They were loud and messy, urinating on neighbors' property and littering the ground with used condoms and drug needles. The residents of Southeast Seminole Heights wanted them gone.

Ferlita hosted a community yard sale to raise money for an attorney, and she helped petition the City Council to get the bar shut down. She sought police protection for Gail and Anthony Miller, a black couple who received threats for joining in the battle against the black-run club.

"She stuck with us the entire time," Gail Miller said. "Rose was not about Rose. Rose was about the people that she served."

• • •

Spurred by her street-level activism and stint as a civic association president, Ferlita jumped into a citywide council race in 1999 and beat a respected incumbent by 14 votes.

Scott Paine has remained friendly with Ferlita since losing that election. He watched her mature into a pragmatic policymaker during eight years on the Tampa City Council and four years as the lone female member of the Hillsborough County Commission.

"I would describe her as a fairly careful politician who both would be able to look at her policy preferences and the political landscape," said Paine, a government and communication professor at the University of Tampa.

Ferlita earned a reputation for being accessible and attentive, a defender of neighborhoods, animals and bullied children. She supported gay pride events, a homeless tent city and saving the county's division for wetlands protection.

She backed the transit tax referendum on last fall's ballot but expressed concern that voters didn't have enough details on funding and rail routes.

"She hasn't always voted my way, but she'll explain why," said Jim Porter, a land-use attorney. "What you get is straight up, whether she's with you or not with you."

Ferlita also sparred with colleagues, lost her temper and turned some people off with her abrasiveness.

"Once she sinks her teeth into an issue, whatever that issue may be, she won't rest until she gets her way," said former Commissioner Kevin White, whom Ferlita convinced fellow board members to sue for costs related to his federal sexual discrimination trial.

Ferlita's obstinacy led one of her mayoral campaign managers to quit after five weeks. Ken Mayo says she was at times "too intense" and "too irrational" for his taste.

"If it's that way in a political campaign, is it going to be that way running city government?" Mayo said.

Ferlita makes no apologies. She says she runs a tight ship and holds staff members to the same high standard she sets for herself.

The passion that pushes some people away draws others in.

Many of her campaign volunteers have been her friends for decades. Even though Ferlita jokes about trying to smile more, they describe her as funny and sincere.

"People say I'm tough," Ferlita said. "You better believe it. But I am there to say 'thank you,' too."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

.biography

Rose Ferlita

Age: 65

Occupation: Part-time pharmacist at CVS and consultant for the Agency for Community Treatment Services

Education: Bachelor of Science in pharmacy, University of Florida

Personal: Single, no children

Previous elected offices: Tampa City Council, 1999-2006; Hillsborough County Commission, 2006-2010

Assets: Home, commercial rental property, checking accounts, investments (including 10 percent ownership in Bay Area Concessions Inc.), jewelry, auto and personal effects

Liabilities: Mortgage, credit cards

Net worth: $1.1 million

About the series

This is the first in a series of profiles of the Tampa mayoral candidates. Profiles of the other candidates, Bob Buckhorn, Ed Turanchik, Tom Scott and Dick Greco, will appear in the weeks leading up to the March 1 election.

Rose Ferlita seeks to serve as her hometown's mayor 02/04/11 [Last modified: Saturday, February 5, 2011 12:07am]

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