TAMPA — In Tampa's mayoral race, candidate Rose Ferlita says she has the home field advantage over opponent Bob Buckhorn.
Her roots in Ybor City go back three generations. When she was growing up, dinner conversations started in English, moved into Spanish and ended in Italian. She reminds voters of her background at almost every chance, at times breaking out a few phrases in Spanish.
"The fact that I am part of the Hispanic population certainly gives me the leg up because they can trust somebody who is part of their community," Ferlita, 65, said.
Ferlita is counting on votes from Tampa's Hispanic community to help her become mayor in the March 22 runoff.
But so is Buckhorn.
A Tampa resident for 25 years, Buckhorn said support gained from the Hispanic/Latino community along the way has been an intimate part of his life.
"We've walked the neighborhoods. We are working the coffee shops. We are doing everything humanly possible to get their vote," Buckhorn said. "I mean, I don't speak Spanish, but I am as ingrained in West Tampa and Spanish-speaking neighborhoods as any official could be."
Voters in West Tampa like that Ferlita speaks their language and knows their culture, and some of the community's Cuban exiles support Buckhorn because he helped them in the past, said Tony Morejon, Hispanic affairs liaison for Hillsborough County government.
Morejon said Hispanics will show up to vote, and he expects to see either candidate include them in executive and other levels of a new administration.
"At least a quarter of this community is Hispanic, and it should reflect there," Morejon said.
According to U.S. census five-year estimates through 2009, 22 percent of Tampa's 335,406 residents are Hispanic/Latino. Nationally, about 15 percent of the population is Hispanic/Latino.
Buckhorn said he has provided service to the Hispanic community as an elected official just as he has to other communities throughout Tampa. Voters in West Tampa want a safe neighborhood and prosperous economy like anyone else, he said, and he's not approaching them differently during the campaign.
"They aspire to the same things," Buckhorn, 52, said. "They want folks who are honest, who are competent, who are prepared and who have a plan."
Both candidates say they're in tune with Hispanics in Tampa. Not everyone agrees.
Amarillys Sandwiches and More in West Tampa sees more than 100 customers come through each day, and many stay for long political discussions during breakfast. Co-founder Juan V. Santallana overhears a lot, and says he knows who the community wants for mayor.
"I would honestly say 99.5 percent is Ferlita," Santallana, 53, said. "And I know both of the candidates. They're both good, but Ferlita, honestly, I think has the upper hand."
Both candidates have been to his restaurant since it opened nine months ago. His customers say they like Ferlita's ideas, and they think she will bring Hispanics better representation in city government.
"The Spanish influence is still pretty vivid here," Santallana said.
Jose Toledo, a lawyer who has been in Tampa about 15 years, said nine out of 10 clients are Hispanic. Toledo, 37, said a candidate needs to be part of a community to represent it well, and his clients tell him they identify more with Ferlita.
But Ferlita isn't in touch with the influx of Colombians, Venezuelans and other Latin Americans who moved to Tampa just 20 years ago or so, said Patrick Manteiga, editor of Tampa's 89-year-old newspaper La Gaceta. To him, Ferlita is not the spokeswoman for the community that she claims to be.
Manteiga said too many people support Ferlita instead of Buckhorn because they are voting based on personality instead of qualifications. Even when Ferlita was a county commissioner, Manteiga said he felt Hispanics didn't have a voice.
His newspaper endorsed Buckhorn for mayor. He said Buckhorn can run a government better than Ferlita, and he knows Tampa.
"It isn't just occasionally that he ventures north of Kennedy Boulevard," Manteiga, 46, said. "He does it a lot."
Ferlita leads among Hispanic voters, according to a poll from Hamilton Campaigns, which generally works for Democrats, and was commissioned by the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.
Buckhorn leads by 8 points in West Tampa, according to polling by Frederick Polls, commissioned by Buckhorn's campaign. The first poll has a margin of error of 5.7 points. For the second, it's 5.6 points.
The Tampa Latin Chamber does not plan to endorse either candidate.
"We love both of them," said Al Frederick, the group's president. "Both have helped out our chamber."
Ileana Morales can be reached at (813)226-3386 or firstname.lastname@example.org.