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In Tampa mayor's race, business experience a hot-button issue

TAMPA — Rose Ferlita has made her business experience a key contrasting point between her and Tampa mayoral opponent Bob Buckhorn.

Ferlita takes every opportunity to mention her more than four decades in the business world, much of it running her own pharmacy. She belittles Buckhorn's work experience, using his $7,000 in reported income last year as evidence that he is a "failed businessman."

"So 44 years of business experience starts me right off at an advantage" Ferlita, 65, said during a radio interview this week.

The point: She more than Buckhorn knows how to run an enterprise and meet a budget, and understands the challenges of small business owners who propel the local economy.

Buckhorn says his business was chugging along fine before he ramped it down to avoid conflicts or "even the appearance of a conflict" while bidding to be Tampa's next mayor. Clients and a past business associate backed up his assertion that last year was an anomaly, that his job was more than a way of killing time between runs for office, as Ferlita supporters have suggested.

Meanwhile, two key backers say the line of criticism has little relevance in judging his ability to run City Hall. Neither Pam Iorio nor Sandy Freedman, the latter for whom Buckhorn worked as a special assistant, had meaningful private-sector business experience before each served as Tampa's mayor.

"I think the whole notion of business experience tends to be a sound bite," said Iorio, the current mayor who is leaving office amid high approval ratings and gave Buckhorn an unexpected endorsement two weeks ago. "But what does it really mean?"

Buckhorn, 52, spent years on the Tampa City Council before running for mayor against Iorio in 2003, coming in third place and missing the runoff. He soon joined Dewey Square Group, a national public affairs consulting firm, working out of its Tampa office.

He spent about five years with the firm until it downsized to focus more on national concerns and Buckhorn formed his own consulting group. Some of his Florida-based Dewey Square clients stayed with him.

"I can assure you that, for better or worse, he spent more time in that office than I did," said Craig Sutherland, who remains a principal in the firm.

In both consulting roles, Buckhorn said he could not disclose some client names without their permission. He and his campaign gave the names of a handful of clients. In two cases, the clients confirmed the relationship and in two others, the Buckhorn campaign provided contracts showing he'd been retained. The other made headlines.

The firms generally had an issue before government. Buckhorn or his firm was hired to help them navigate the political process, or to help them build grass roots support.

Such was the case when Buckhorn and Dewey Square helped the owners of a Lake County retirement community with a yearlong fight starting in 2006 against a concrete plant built next door. The concrete plant was ultimately dismantled.

"With Bob, he wasn't a name on a letterhead," said Shannon Smith, former chief financial officer for American Land Lease, the Clearwater company that owned the community. "He was very much on the ground."

A Tampa General Hospital executive said Buckhorn helped the trauma center navigate the zoning process and work with neighborhood groups on Davis Islands during a major expansion from 2005 to 2008.

"He was there at the beginning and helped us put our strategy together," said Jean Mayer, senior vice president for strategic services.

Buckhorn also represented Tampa Pipeline, a company that stood to gain competition from a rival proposal to install another fuel pipeline to Tampa International Airport in 2007. Protests from neighborhood groups near the airport drew public attention to the proposal.

His campaign provided contracts in which he represented two other companies, a waste hauler and a cable company, with issues before local government. The campaign asked that the clients' named not be disclosed because it had not gotten permission to divulge them. Each contract was for $10,000.

Buckhorn said he made a little under "six figures" a year at Dewey Square, less than that when he left the firm.

"It was less because it was a startup, so I didn't make as much," Buckhorn said. "Had I been able to keep growing the business, I certainly would have."

Buckhorn said that he is fortunate that his physician wife earns enough that he could scale back his work and run for office.

Like Ferlita, he touts the work he has done as giving him an appreciation for overly burdensome regulations business owners face from government, thanks to his work for his clients. Streamlining the process is part of his platform.

Ferlita did not return a phone call seeking comment. But in the Wednesday radio interview with WHNZ, 1250-AM, she again asserted that she has a far more impressive resume of business involvement. It includes working for a chain pharmacy before starting her own Rose Drugs in Seminole Heights, which she ran while also serving on the Tampa City Council.

"Who do you want there: somebody who doesn't have that experience or somebody who's been that?" Ferlita said. "I am totally supportive of small business. That's what we're about."

Freedman, the former mayor, said there is more to running City Hall than business know-how. She noted that, unlike Ferlita, Buckhorn spent eight years not just on the council, but as her assistant, tackling all the issues confronting the city.

"You take the totality of the person," Freedman said. "He went with me for the better part of eight years to maybe 75 percent of the things that I attended. He was as close to being the mayor without being the mayor."

Times staff writer Rick Danielson contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

In Tampa mayor's race, business experience a hot-button issue 03/17/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 17, 2011 11:50pm]
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