TAMPA — One Sunday last month, the Rev. Thomas Scott preached a 70-minute sermon replete with witty references to Donald Trump, Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Jay-Z and Ed McMahon.
His approach got laughs, but his message to the 34th Street Church of God was serious. He urged members to admit problems, accept responsibility, create a plan and start taking action.
"It's time," he said, "to face reality."
Scott's reality: He wants to be Tampa's next mayor. Widely liked and respected, the 57-year-old City Council chairman boasts a long record of public service and is the only candidate who currently holds elected office.
Yet he trails his four opponents' fundraising totals by a wide margin, and people tell him he can't win the election because of the color of his skin.
Scott, the only black candidate in the mayoral field, is hurt and motivated by the naysayers.
He has proven them wrong before.
He thrived after moving from a segregated school to one that was integrated. He beat out a veteran politician to secure his first Hillsborough County Commission seat. He became a three-time board chairman for both the commission and council, a success in the face of an alcoholic father who said Scott would never amount to anything.
Nearly two years after announcing his candidacy, Scott says he remains dedicated to the mayor's race despite the challenges.
"This is my path," he said. "This is where I've chosen to do the greater good for this community."
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Scott arrived in Tampa 30 years ago, a young husband and father eager to lead a church. By then, he had served two years as an Army chaplain assistant and four years as a parole and probation officer.
In his small congregation, he saw struggles he knew well.
He grew up in a three-room house in Macon, Ga. A fraternal twin among 11 children, he shared a bed with three siblings. They ate black-eyed peas and rice most meals, wore the same clothes each day to school.
"I know what it is to be poor," Scott said during the Feb. 3 City Council meeting, before voting in favor of a panhandling ban that failed to gain enough support.
His mother worked hard to keep her children clean and fed. Memories of his abusive father, murdered when Scott was young, still move the son to tears.
Scott credits a Macon preacher with being his true father-figure.
The Rev. Richard Cleveland lived a block away. Each evening after work, he talked to Scott about homework and life and chores over a scoop of Baskin-Robbins ice cream.
On Sundays, Cleveland took Scott to church. Scott sang Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam in the choir and started preaching in his teens.
"He had excellent orator skills," said Cleveland, 76. "He had vision. Everybody loved Tom, the young people and the older people, because he carried himself in such a way that he demanded respect."
Black churches loomed large during the civil rights movement, giving Scott an early glimpse into the power of the institution and its people when they unite for a cause. He learned, too, the hard work that would be required of him in order to succeed.
"It was more than reading the Bible," Scott said. "You got a lesson on how to present yourself before the public."
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How does Scott present himself?
Ask those he has served and who have served alongside him, and you hear consistent themes. Hard worker. Bridge builder. Listener. Polite, firm, fair.
He dresses in sharp suits. Laughs easily. Cries frequently. He's better with gadgets than golf. He prefers old-school music like the Temptations, but sometimes listens to the new stuff to stay hip.
He wins admiration and manages to keep it.
"He has a pastor's heart," said state Sen. Ronda Storms, who served with Scott on the County Commission. "He tries to bridge rifts."
Scott considers politics a natural extension of his ministry.
After building a bigger church and starting a school in the mid '80s, he looked for ways to have broader influence. He knew transportation, jobs and affordable housing issues weren't unique to his members.
He lost his bid for a School Board seat in 1992. But four years later, Scott pulled off an upset against a better-known, better-funded candidate in the Democratic primary for a commission seat.
He did it despite winning a minority of votes from black neighborhoods and went on to clinch the office.
After just a year on the job, Scott's colleagues on the Republican-majority board elected him chairman. Scott would receive that distinction a total of six times as commissioner and council member, evidence, he says, that he's dependable and principled.
Fellow officials agree.
"One of the hardest things to do when you're chair is to give everybody a chance to talk and to speak their mind and to control the discussion but not be too controlling," said John Dingfelder, a former City Council member. "He did that balance very well."
Storms remembers feeling "duly chastened but appropriately so" whenever Scott pulled her aside to discuss what he considered misbehavior during board meetings.
"He never was one throwing sharp elbows," she said. "But if it went over the line, he would say, 'You know what, stop it right there.' "
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Not long after getting elected to office, however, Scott's own actions drew scrutiny.
A federal grand jury investigated whether he and then-Commissioner Jim Norman pressured the president of Tampa General Hospital to buy expensive medical equipment from a campaign contributor in exchange for their votes on a measure important to the hospital's financial health.
Both commissioners denied wrongdoing. Scott said his church refunded $15,000 that the businessman donated around the same time Scott was arranging meetings at the hospital.
The inquiry ended in June 1999 with no charges, but Scott's embarrassment lingered.
"It really was a painful thing for me because I always held myself in high esteem," Scott said this week. "I heard all my life from my mother, all you have is your name … and you've got to protect that."
He prefers as his legacy his efforts to form and lead an affordable housing task force, create a special taxing district that channels more money to neighborhood improvements in eastern Tampa and organize a clutter-cleaning campaign in his commission district, the county's poorest.
As mayor, he says he would move the city forward by emphasizing partnerships — working with business leaders, higher education institutions and other governments to shape a robust, skilled work force.
Scott's priorities reflect his heart as much as his politics.
A conservative Democrat who often marched in step with his Republican colleagues, he voted in 2005 to ban county sponsorship of gay pride events.
But on the City Council in 2009 (where he won office after a failed bid for an at-large commission seat), Scott supported an ordinance that protects transgender people from discrimination. He said he asked himself, "What would Jesus do?"
And when his gay younger brother Larry was dying of AIDS in the early '90s, it was Scott who took him in and cared for him during his final devastating months.
"He always worked for whatever he felt personally was the right place to be," said lawyer Steve Anderson, who has contributed to Scott and several other mayoral candidates.
"That's a hard thing to find," Anderson said. "And truly I saw that many, many times with him. He stands up for what he believes in."
Colleen Jenkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3337.