TAMPA — Candidates in the citywide District 1 City Council race have similarities.
Both agree the budget is a priority. Both are looking for ways to help small businesses grow.
But as the March 22 runoff election approaches, Curtis Stokes and Mike Suarez are counting on their differences to set them apart.
With more than 18 years of business experience and time spent volunteering, Stokes, 42, said he is focused on what his past can do for the city's future.
"I'm uniquely qualified by the level of commitment and service I have put in to this community," he said.
As a bank executive, Stokes said he has experience working with budgets. As the former head of the Hillsborough County NAACP, his leadership skills have been put to the test and relationships have been built, he said.
As the only candidate in a citywide race living in New Tampa, Stokes said he thinks where he lives could give him an edge.
If elected, Stokes said, he wants to focus on consolidating city services, furthering a loan system to help small businesses he has begun work on and taking a look at pension options for city employees.
For Suarez, 46, connecting with people is one of his main goals.
Throughout his campaign, the independent insurance agent and former Hillsborough County Democratic Party head spent time going door to door and shaking hands. If elected, Suarez, who lives in Riverside Heights, said he'd like to further that interaction.
"I made a commitment that after I'm elected, every month I will be in a different neighborhood to talk to people about how we can make this a better city," he said.
Suarez said he wants to see council members be more responsive to residents' concerns and react more quickly to neighborhood problems.
He'd like to address street flooding, examine the city's insurance policy, locate departments the city could merge with the county to increase efficiency and save money, and develop a low-interest loan for small businesses to expand.
Stokes currently serves on a different seat on the City Council. He was appointed in July to fill a vacancy left when Linda Saul-Sena departed.
When he applied for the position, Stokes said he would not be running in the current election. In November, he said he changed his mind.
Suarez, who tried for the same position and said on the application that he would be running in this election, said he had no comment on the matter.
While both candidates have a handful of endorsements from local unions and organizations, including the Tampa firefighters union endorsement of Suarez and the Tampa Police Benevolent Association endorsement of Stokes, only Suarez earned the support of his three former council race opponents.
Rick Barcena, Guido Mansicalco and Tom Slaughter all endorsed Suarez after their defeat in the March 1 primary election.
Stokes said he isn't worried.
"I knew going in it was going to be them against me," he said. "I don't think it uniquely gives them an advantage."
For those who voted for the three defeated candidates, the endorsement may make a difference.
"Previous supporters for candidates that did not make it through are still engaged," said Mark Nash, a Tampa political consultant who is not involved in any of the City Council races. "If they were willing to be influenced by a candidate when they were a candidate then they are more than willing to listen to the candidate as an advocate in the next round."
In the end, it will all come down to votes.
"If anyone is truly concerned about the outcome of the runoff, it is going to center around turnout" Nash said. "Historically, those numbers are significantly different and in the end, the few will decide who leads the majority."
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3374.