TAMPA — Voters here go to the polls Tuesday to choose not just the mayor of Tampa, but the unofficial mayor of Tampa Bay.
Tampa's mayor is often the region's most visible politician, with a bully pulpit and clout that don't stop at the city limits — no offense to any other mayors around here.
None taken, says Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard.
"Clearly, Tampa is important to the entire region," he says. "I just hope whoever the next mayor is continues to be regional in their thinking."
Former Pinellas County Commissioner Ronnie Duncan agrees.
"Anybody coming into the position of mayor of Tampa today has to realize that Tampa is not just an island unto itself, but is part of a dynamic region that has many moving pieces and parts," says Duncan, chairman of the board of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, the state-created agency that coordinates transportation planning for a seven-county area.
If the campaign leading up to Tuesday's city election is any sign, Hibbard and Duncan have a good chance of getting their wish.
The five candidates — Bob Buckhorn, Rose Ferlita, Dick Greco, Thomas Scott and Ed Turanchik — all have solid experience in elected office at the city level, county level or both. In different ways, they all recognize Tampa's links to the larger region.
On issues such as mass transit and water, Buckhorn and Turanchik especially stress the importance of working with Pinellas and Pasco counties. Ferlita, Greco and Scott tend to emphasize the value of partnerships and major employers such as MacDill Air Force Base and the Port of Tampa.
A successful mayor of Tampa needs to do all that and more, says Pam Iorio, who is leaving the office after eight years because of term limits.
"When I became mayor it became very apparent to me that you set the tone for a larger geographic area," she says. After taking office, she quickly saw she should not pick fights or pontificate on every topic that came along.
"I learned early on to be very careful about what I said, to not have opinions on everything, to be careful how I phrased things," Iorio says. "Because I realized that I did represent a larger community. You don't want to embarrass the community. You want people to be proud of Tampa and of Tampa Bay."
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Believe it or not, this isn't just politicians talking.
Based on questions asked at candidate forums, many Tampa voters expect their mayor to think broadly, even to have something of a foreign policy: trade with Cuba, good or bad? How about direct flights to Cuba from Tampa International Airport? How should the expansion of the Panama Canal affect the port?
Take trade with Cuba, which has come up often.
Ferlita says she would be ready — one foot on the gas, the other on the brake — to pursue trade the instant U.S. policy toward Havana changes.
Others go further, or in different directions.
Scott, the first candidate to raise the issue, says the city and the port should work on trying to engineer some agricultural exports to Cuba now, as other cities (New Orleans, Houston) and states (Alabama, Nebraska) already do under a limited exemption to the embargo.
"We're dancing around this issue. We need to engage Cuba, we need to do trade with Cuba," he says. "Why not Tampa? We're talking about job creation."
Turanchik, who wants to lead a delegation to Cuba in his first 90 days in office, says U.S. policy toward Cuba is dictated by South Florida. He argues that if officials from Orlando to Tampa Bay demand an end to the embargo with Cuba, it will happen.
"There's tremendous economic and political power in this corridor," he recently told the Kiwanis Club. "As mayor, I will lead that effort, and we will open up the doors to Cuba."
Buckhorn says that as mayor, he would have limited political capital and limited time. So when it comes to expanding trade, he would prefer first to focus on more mature economies in Latin America. Unlike Cuba, he says, countries from Mexico to Venezuela actually have money to buy U.S. exports that could be shipped through Tampa.
Then there's Greco.
In 2002, then-Mayor Greco led an entourage of prominent local leaders on an unannounced trip to Cuba that stirred up controversy when word slipped out. Greco says he did not go to pursue trade or business.
"I went, hopefully, maybe, to change them into some kind of democracy," he says. "If I was president of the United States, I'd be there tomorrow."
In a meeting with Fidel Castro that lasted nearly six hours — more time than the pope got, Greco likes to say — the former mayor says he talked as much as Castro did, something the Cuban leader wasn't used to.
Greco said he mentioned Cuba's high literacy rate to Castro, then asked what Castro expected all those educated young people to do, drive cabs?
"He said, 'I don't have an answer for that,' " Greco says. "I would do anything — anything — if I could change that. … We need to go down there and say, 'Look, if you do this, we'll do that.' "
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These positions on trade with Cuba illustrate something else. As a group, these candidates can think broadly about the mayor's role and responsibilities. Individually, however, each has a unique style and approach.
"We have to have a vision that … embraces regional partners — St. Petersburg, Pinellas, Hillsborough," Ferlita says.
On the stump Buckhorn regularly mentions his recent meetings with St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Al Higginbotham.
"We're going to live together or we're going to die together as a region," Buckhorn said during a recent discussion of connecting transit systems of Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco. "We compete together as a region. Transportation has got to be the linkage that connects all of us."
Buckhorn also borrows from the work of other cities, especially New York, on his approach to policing Tampa.
Similarly, if the idea of combining the bus systems of Pinellas and Hillsborough comes up, Turanchik can speak knowledgeably about the different pay scales of each agency, and how they would affect a merger. He looks to Clearwater and other communities for precedents for some of his initiatives, such as making it easier for businesses to meet storm water retention requirements.
Greco, however, approaches these issues — indeed, virtually every issue — through a uniquely personal prism. Unlike Turanchik and Buckhorn, he will never be accused of being a policy wonk.
Rather, he always looks to make new friends, regardless of ideology, and build personal relationships through which he can work to achieve his goals.
Greco says he was motivated to run, in part, by the toxic partisan political atmosphere that has candidates denying that they are politicians.
"People ask me all the time, 'Are you liberal or conservative?' "he says. "I'm reasonable."
For the record, Tampa's mayoral race is nonpartisan. All of the candidates are Democrats, except for Ferlita, who is a Republican.
Still, Greco is a Democrat who says he votes Republican a lot, though not always. In November, he voted for Democrat Alex Sink over Republican Rick Scott in the governor's race.
"I know her. I've known her a long time," he says. He didn't know Scott, had "no idea" about him.
After the election, Greco made a point to schedule a get-to-know-you meeting with Scott.
"I spent half an hour with him," he told the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce a few weeks before Scott rejected federal funds for high-speed rail. "He's a businessman. He's got a lot to learn about politics, which is like sailing. You tack, as opposed to going in a straight line."
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The Tampa mayor's influence just doesn't make itself known through public pronouncements, says Hibbard, the Clearwater mayor who sits down with his counterparts in St. Petersburg and Tampa for the occasional three-mayor lunch.
For example, when Tampa gives its police officers a raise, the effects ripple across the area because other cities compete for the same pool of employees.
"That's one of the things that people don't understand," Hibbard says.
Outside of Tampa Bay, though, forget that kind of nuance. Even basic questions of geography elude many people who might be expected to know better.
In 2008, the mayor of Philadelphia called Iorio after the Phillies and the Tampa Bay Rays reached the World Series. He wanted to make a Philly-cheesesteaks-vs.-Cuban-sandwiches bet on the outcome of the series. Sure, Iorio said, but she suggested he call the mayor of St. Petersburg, too.
"As soon as you get out of Florida," Iorio says, "they think you're mayor of Tampa Bay."
Richard Danielson can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3403.