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Will the low-tech approach work in Tampa's council District 6 race?

TAMPA — Charlie Miranda is running for re-election to the City Council, but he has no Facebook account or campaign website.

His daughter gave him a Blackberry, but he doesn't text or even know the model. "T-Mobile 3.2 MP," he said, reading the back.

That's not it.

Until recently, he had never used e-mail. He sent his first message out several weeks ago. It was personal, not campaign-related.

"I don't have a Twitter. I don't have nothing,'' said Miranda, 70. "You win by having more votes."

Here's what he says he does have: common sense and 17 years of experience over three decades as a council member. His family's Tampa roots date to the late 1800s. He knows where Tampa has been and doesn't need a bunch of online "friends" to tell him where Tampa needs to go.

His lone opponent in the District 6 race, Kelly Benjamin, is half his age.

Benjamin tweets campaign stops. He has a website, a blog and a Paypal campaign account. Ninety four people "like" his Facebook page. His YouTube channel gets his platform out, as well as a song, Out With the Old, In With the New. It has been viewed 173 times.

"To me the race is clear," said Benjamin, 35. "I'm young and fresh and he's old and stale."

The competition for District 6 is a study of campaign contrasts between an older politician and a younger activist. It may also be a primer on whether traditional methods can work at a time when Gov. Rick Scott is holding Twitter town halls and Tampa mayoral candidates are hosting video chats.

It has been three years since Facebook exploded into politics, helping Barack Obama mobilize an apathetic young voter base. Now every politician seems to be social networking for votes.

Will Miller, a Southeast Missouri State University political science professor who consults on campaigns and studies the convergence of politics and social media, said some older politicians have told him they're ready to hang up their campaign signs for Facebook.

That's a terrible idea, Miller said. Social networking is just another tool to reach voters, not a replacement for handshakes and mailers. He notes that 5.5 million Facebook users weren't even voting age in 2009.

Using Facebook to reach the 18 to 29 set is a solid strategy, he said, but candidates need to remember that age group made up just 18 percent of voters in the 2008 general election.

In March municipal elections, like the one in Tampa this year, the numbers are even lower. In 2007, only 182 of the 27,026 people who voted in Tampa were between 18 and 29.

"It's not like you're going to hit who you want," Miller said.

There's also the risk of creating a Facebook page and never using it, which makes you look out of touch, or — worse — listing interests such as "war movies" that don't interest young adults.

Young campaign staffs can help push the right message. But Miranda is on his own. His wife of 48 years, Shirley, was his campaign manager. She died in December 2009.

So he's doing what he has always done. When he ran for the council in 2007, he had to finally acknowledge computers because the supervisor of elections required electronic campaign disclosure reports. Miranda bought a glass table, computer, printer and scanner.

"Hell, I thought I was an executive," he said.

Over the next few months, he dismantled and donated it all.

He won the election and immediately asked the city's information technology staff to get rid of his City Hall computer. His request was denied. He called back, told IT he was going to lunch and said if the computer wasn't out of his office by the time he got back, the city would find it in the elevator.

It was gone when he got back.

Miranda relies on his aide, Mary Bryan, who fields most of his e-mails. She answers the easy ones and brings him the others. Even Mayor Pam Iorio has become used to Miranda's monastic online presence, addressing messages to his aide.

But Miranda said his "simple life" doesn't make him unresponsive. He touts voluminous call logs that prove he gets back to everyone. He's the only council member who visits his office every day, Bryan said.

"You can communicate in different ways," Miranda said. "I choose to communicate eye to eye to solve the problem."

He also feels computers and mobile devices alienate people as much as they connect. On occasions, he has found his daughter's family sitting around home on their computers and phones, not talking to each other.

"Too many people spend too much time in front of a screen and not connecting face to face," acknowledges Kelly Benjamin, Miranda's opponent. "But I think it's just a fact with how society is going today."

Miranda recognizes this, and he's curious about what his grandchildren are always staring at. He also has been hearing about the wonders of Google.

In December, Miranda bought a computer desk at Staples for $29, a printer at Sam's Club for $59 and a Toshiba laptop for $450. He signed up for a Yahoo account using his name and old baseball number — 27 — and sent out his first e-mail to friends in Peru that he had met on a recent cruise.

"I just wanted to learn how to receive and send e-mails out," he said. "Reply, write and send. I learned three things and that's as far as I want to go."

He figures he has sent about 10 e-mails. Yahoo, Toshiba and the Home Shopping Network send him the most messages.

"They own the world, I think," he said.

Miranda calls his aide once in a while when he's locked out of his e-mail account. He doesn't yet plan to use e-mail in his campaign. But Bryan thinks Miranda's inching closer to becoming a technophile.

If he wins, she thinks, he might start using the old Dell laptop she sneaked back into his city office to pique his interest. This week it was buried under an accordion file of papers.

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

Will the low-tech approach work in Tampa's council District 6 race? 01/21/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 21, 2011 9:50pm]
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