TAMPA — In a surprise move, Mayor Pam Iorio on Friday endorsed Bob Buckhorn's candidacy for mayor.
The reason: a negative attack ad from Buckhorn's opponent, Rose Ferlita.
"I've always deplored negative campaigning," Iorio said. "I just can't stay neutral in the face of that."
Iorio's endorsement gives Buckhorn the support of an outgoing mayor viewed positively by 87 percent of her city's voters, according to a Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce poll. Thirty-six percent said she has done an excellent job.
Heading toward the March 22 runoff, Buckhorn and Ferlita often have competed to praise her leadership.
On Friday, Buckhorn was grateful, saying Iorio's decision capped a week in which he won support from former opponents Ed Turanchik and Thomas Scott, plus Tampa's influential police union.
But Ferlita later touted a weighty endorsement of her own from Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.
Bondi praised Ferlita's work improving code enforcement while on the Tampa City Council and her efforts to combat bullying as a county commissioner. As mayor, Bondi said, Ferlita would help fight pill mills.
Still, Ferlita said she was "a little bit disappointed" at the mayor's decision, especially since Iorio had planned to stay out of the race.
Iorio said that changed this week after Ferlita began airing a television spot attacking Buckhorn's record at City Hall, where he was a special assistant to former Mayor Sandy Freedman and a City Council member, and in the private sector.
PolitiFact Florida, the political fact-checking arm of the St. Petersburg Times, on Friday rated one statement in the ad — "Buckhorn supported forcing police officers to keep their guns locked in the trunks of their cruisers" — as "False."
"You know it's only going to go to downhill from there," said Iorio, who leaves the mayor's office on March 31 because of term limits.
In an e-mail announcing her endorsement, Iorio said "the negative turn of the campaign by Bob's opponent causes me great concern." She added that she believes negative campaigning "reflects on how one would govern."
"I know that it takes positive and steady leadership every single day to properly lead this city," Iorio added. "Bob has demonstrated those attributes and will calmly and thoughtfully lead this city forward."
During a League of Women Voters debate Friday, Buckhorn asked Ferlita to pull the ad. She declined.
"The comments that were made in the commercial that we put out were factual," she said, citing a 1996 Tampa Tribune article quoting then-state Rep. Jim Davis.
At the time, Davis made a similar claim about the shotgun-in-the-trunk policy, though he directed it at Freedman, not Buckhorn.
On Friday, however, Davis said he should not have made the claim, which he put in a campaign mailer.
"The day after the mailer went out I called personally a couple of the law enforcement officers that my campaign had talked to and came to the conclusion that what they were telling me did not support what the mailer said," Davis said.
"I think the mailer was a mistake on my part," he said. "I have to take responsibility for that."
Ferlita's TV spot is not the only attack ad making news.
A new third-party flier from a Tampa-based group called Less Government Now says, "Ferlita is an unmarried woman with a suspect commitment to family values."
Ferlita called the flier "an affront" and "an insult" to "many females in this community that have chosen for their own reasons to be single."
"My family values can compete with anyone's in this city, this state and this country," she said. "My parents gave me those values. I keep them near and dear. And the status of somebody's marriage or no marriage or single or whatever is really is not a component in that."
Less Government Now, which targeted Ferlita in another flier before the primary, has an address on S Howard Avenue in Tampa.
Its treasurer, Tracy Cintron, did not return calls or an e-mail request for comment.
Cintron, 34, works as a manager at the Tally Ho Pub Bar and Grille in Tampa, according to her LinkedIn profile. In 2005 and 2006, she worked as office manager and statewide volunteer coordinator for Davis' campaign for governor.
Davis said he has had virtually no contact with Cintron since the campaign and doesn't know anything about Less Government Now.
Buckhorn also said he didn't know the group, condemned the flier and said he would run a positive campaign.
Iorio said third-party ads played no role in her endorsement. Sadly, she said, the law does not require such groups to report how they raise and spend their money until after the election.
"I'm talking about material that comes directly from the campaigns," Iorio said. "That's the only thing I can clearly evaluate."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.