TAMPA — While Tampa City Council member Mary Mulhern was deciding whether to run for re-election, a challenger was already making the rounds.
Scott Strepina started campaigning for the citywide District 2 seat more than a year ago. In addition to candidate forums and neighborhood canvasses, Strepina visited some of the city's institutions and its leaders to shore up his expertise on Tampa's strengths and weaknesses.
The only thing missing is strong leaders to help the city realize its full potential, he says.
Mulhern had questioned how effective she could be on the council and considered running for mayor or the Florida House, maybe even Hillsborough County Commission.
But the opportunities weren't there.
"It didn't look good for me to run for anything else," she said, saying other high-profile candidates had jumped into the races she eyed.
She decided her best bet was to pursue another council term. If she wins a second term, she would be regarded as a council veteran.
"I feel I'm needed there, a voice of reason really," she said.
Just as the filing period came to a close, a third candidate surfaced. Longtime neighborhood activist Susan Long was frustrated with the council.
Long is the former president of the Old Seminole Heights Neighborhood Association, one of the city's largest and most active. Council members, she said, seemed to ignore the community's growing calls for a panhandling ban. "I can do better than that," she figured.
Mulhern was among the council members who resisted a ban, saying she wanted to know more about the public safety risks street vendors and panhandlers posed before she made up her mind.
But as public outcries grew louder, she supported efforts to move forward.
"There was a huge amount of public pressure to do it," Mulhern said. "The voters wanted us to do something."
A proposal to ban panhandling on major roadways came before the City Council on Feb. 3. Mulhern voted to support the ban but was in the minority.
Although Long's campaign signs say "ban panhandling," she says she is not a single-issue candidate.
Her professional background — she has a doctorate in finance, economics and statistics — makes her an asset during budget deliberations, she says. Her neighborhood activism required knowledge of the city's zoning and code enforcement regulations, she added.
Strepina, too, has experience in accounting and finance, saying the years he spent as a Coca-Cola account executive required him to manage employees and a budget while coming up with ways to improve the bottom line.
Mulhern counters that she is the one who has become the budget expert, serving as the council's finance committee chairwoman for three years. The citizen's budget advisory committee she created supplied both transparency and fresh ideas to the process, she says.
Tia Mitchell can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3405.