TAMPA — Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera stepped through brick-lined corridors and listened over the whir and rumble of motors and churning metal as Eric Newman gave him a crash course in Ybor City history.
He heard how the cigar industry made Tampa what it is, how Ybor City once boasted more than 150 cigar factories, and how only Newman's business, the J.C. Newman Cigar Co., was still operating.
With the Food and Drug Administration poised to approve tighter regulations on tobacco products, Newman's pitch to the state's second-in-command was a cry for help.
"We are in the fight of our life," Newman said. "We are working day and night trying to convince them not to close this factory. … I don't think we're the real target. But if we don't speak up, we could easily become an unintended consequence."
For Lopez-Cantera, the Wednesday morning visit to the bustling factory was as much about listening to constituents as it was about campaigning.
He took swipes at former Gov. Charlie Crist, the likely Democratic opponent of Gov. Rick Scott in this year's election, along with President Barack Obama. Neither one, he pointed out, has ever run a business. And both, he said, favor policies that would hurt small businesses like the Newman company.
"This is a perfect example of government overstepping its bounds," Lopez-Cantera said before a throng of news cameras. "These regulations would put this family business out of business."
At the heart of the issue are the proposed FDA regulations on tobacco products, which are aimed at large cigarette companies.
The company is seeking to be included in the FDA's definition of premium cigars based on their ingredients and how they are made. The FDA has proposed exempting premium cigars priced at $10 or more, but many of Newman's cigars cost significantly less.
The new rules, which Newman says would require thousands of hours of product testing and analysis, would be so costly that his company would be unable to introduce new products and have to close.
J.C. Newman's 130 employees make about 12 million cigars a year on Depression-era machines operated by hand. The company was founded in 1895 by Newman's grandfather, Julius Caeser Newman.
"Businesses open and close every day," Eric Newman said. "But this is the heart and soul of Tampa. Without cigars, we'd be just like any other city in the country."
Newman and his brother, Bobby Newman, the company vice president, have launched a campaign urging the public to submit comments to the FDA, asking that the company be exempt from the new regulations.
Even as the Newmans embraced the Republican lieutenant governor, campaign finance records show past donations to candidates of both parties, but slightly favoring Democrats. In 2010, Eric Newman gave $500 to Democrat Alex Sink, who lost to Scott.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, has said premium cigars shouldn't be subjected to the same rules as electronic cigarettes and flavored products because they aren't marketed to minors and aren't smoked in the frequency that would cause an addiction.
"The FDA didn't even exist in 1895," Lopez-Cantera said. "It's their consumers, it's their customers that decide what should be a premium cigar. It shouldn't be the FDA."
Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.