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Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio for Senate? Here's why and why not

She's a popular big-city mayor from Florida's most important political region. But she can't stand partisan politics and is a stranger to most Floridians. Should Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio run for Senate? "You don't make a decision like this lightly. You have to look at a statewide race, you have to look at the job itself," Iorio said, giving no time frame for deciding. "The mayor's job comes first, so it's not as if I have all this time just to talk to everyone in the world about running for any other office." We're glad to help. Here are four reasons Iorio should run for the Senate seat to be vacated by Mel Martinez in 2010 and four reasons she shouldn't:

Run, Pam, Run

1. Tampa Bay. Never underestimate the importance of running from the Tampa Bay area, home to nearly one in four votes in both the Democratic primary and the general election.

Just being well known in Florida's biggest media market automatically gives Iorio, 49, a name recognition advantage worth millions of dollars. A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday showed her and U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, tied for the lead, each with 16 percent support, in a four-person Democratic primary.

2. The field. The race features no political giant in either party (though speculation is growing that Charlie Crist may run). Three announced Democrats — Meek, state Sen. Dan Gelber and North Miami Mayor Kevin Burns — all hail from Miami-Dade County, while U.S. Rep. Ron Klein of Palm Beach County is considering it. They stand to split the South Florida vote, while Iorio could dominate the Interstate 4 corridor and fare well among moderate North Florida Democrats because of her nonpartisan image.

3. Profile. She's smart, funny and exudes competence. And she's a woman.

"The reason Pam Iorio should run is because she'd win," said Derek Newton, a Democratic consultant in Miami. "She wins the primary because she's the only candidate with a media market to herself, it looks like she's the only woman in the race, and coming from an executive office like mayor is a much easier sell than being in Congress or the Legislature."

Before her 2007 re-election campaign, a potential rival commissioned a poll that showed more than 80 percent of Hillsborough voters approved of her performance. A politician with those kinds of numbers in Florida's most crucial battleground is a politician who can win Florida. Her nonpartisan image is ideal for the general election.

4. Timing. A public servant since 1985, Iorio will be out of a job in 2011 because of term limits. Open Senate seats tend to be once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, especially a race with a relatively weak field like this one may have.

Forget it, Pam

1. The daunting campaign. Iorio was 26 the last time she had a seriously tough campaign. She has never shown a stomach for a bruising partisan race.

"This is a very tough lady," insisted Fran Davin, by all accounts Iorio's closest political adviser. "Underneath that great, big smile, there's a lot of strength, and I think she understands politics as well as anyone."

Maybe, but Iorio's thin skin would be sorely tested. Is she really prepared to sit in front of a phone eight hours a day — day after day — dialing for dollars? Is the mayor known as a control freak able to cede authority to campaign professionals who know more than she does? And is she prepared to step down as mayor well before Election Day? That is likely what a Senate campaign would require.

2. No network. Iorio's nonpartisanship may be admirable and helpful in a general election, but it won't help in the primary that she has rarely lifted a finger to help other Democrats.

She never gave money to Kathy Castor, Alex Sink, Bill McBride, John Kerry, Bill Nelson or Barack Obama. She has never courted Democratic activists in South Florida or interest groups in Tallahassee, and she knows few significant Democratic fundraisers.

Launching a statewide campaign when almost no party insiders and activists know you, and still fewer owe you any favors, is no easy task.

3. Not much of a story. Bob Martinez went from Tampa mayor to governor, touting his record leading "America's Next Great City." His tenure as mayor included a new performing arts center, a convention center, a reconstructed zoo, a waste-to-energy-plant and the annexation of thousands of undeveloped acres in New Tampa.

Iorio's accomplishments are considerably lower profile.

"I've been here 25 years and I'd be hard pressed to say there are major projects I could associate with her, except better drainage," said Tampa lawyer Tom Scarritt, a top Democratic fundraiser.

4. Wrong job. Iorio is by nature a chief executive, not a legislator. The my-way-or-the-highway mayor who has exercised a heavy hand over City Council members seems an odd fit for the collegial give-and-take of the U.S. Senate.

Maybe she'll get lucky, and Charlie Crist will run for Senate. Then Democratic Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink would run for governor. CFO Iorio has a nice ring to it.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8241.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio for Senate? Here's why and why not 02/17/09 [Last modified: Thursday, February 26, 2009 4:00pm]
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