TAMPA — Someone else might have kept his mouth shut.
Not Dick Greco.
At a candidates forum in Seminole Heights, Greco's sometime friend and longtime irritant, Bob Buckhorn, was grousing about going gray.
"Bob, don't worry about the gray hair. Mine is gray, too," the 77-year-old Greco said. But he said he colors his medium brown.
"Always use the gloves," he added, "or your fingers turn black."
Big laugh. Point for Greco.
This is Dick Greco at his best, charming his way past problematic issues like his age. Yes, some of his ad-libs miss, like when he compared a race riot to a panty raid. But he connects often, and remains one of Tampa Bay's most successful politicians.
In four previous terms as mayor, Greco did big things in Tampa, from bringing Metropolitan Life here in the 1970s to selling voters on a sales tax for a new stadium and new schools in the 1990s.
Now his campaign is flush with cash, well-organized and sophisticated. One fact alone — that requests for absentee ballots are setting records while his campaign urges people to vote absentee — should keep his rivals awake at night.
"I don't need this job," Greco told the Tiger Bay Club on Friday. "I want it. You know why? Because I love the city of Tampa. I've been here all my life. Which is 500 years or whatever."
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Growing up, Greco lived on a mostly Anglo street in Seminole Heights, but much of his life revolved around the family hardware store in Ybor City.
Like many Tampa immigrants, his grandparents had rolled cigars. By the time he went to school he spoke English, Italian and Spanish.
To that, Greco has added some basic Greek, a smattering of Japanese and a touch of Arabic. He likes addressing people in their own tongue. It puts them at ease.
An only child, Greco says his earliest memories are of being surrounded by love, of kissing everyone in the house hello, goodbye and good night. Always.
"I was probably overly smothered with love," he says, adding that's likely what makes him such a different politician. "To me, it's a nice way to be. I wish I could embrace the world."
It's not for nothing that Greco's campaign symbol is an outstretched hand. Working a room, Greco pats, pets, pinches, squeezes, caresses, hugs and kisses.
And his opponents get the same bromantic treatment as the voters. On his way to the microphone in the middle of a Westshore Alliance candidates forum, he reached down and cupped Ed Turanchik's chin in the palm of his hand as lovingly and casually as a parent smiling at a child.
Greco's gift for small talk, flattery and the affectionate gesture helps him smooth over minor disagreements.
"He's a genius at avoiding conflict," said former County Commissioner Joe Chillura, a lifelong friend.
He also gets away with things that would cost others dearly.
"He expresses himself without concern for ruffling feathers, and he's not politically correct and never has been," criminal defense attorney and anti-Castro activist Ralph Fernandez says.
Tampa residents whose families fled Fidel Castro's regime still feel "significant animosity" toward Greco for spending nearly six hours talking to Castro on a 2002 trade mission to Cuba, Fernandez says.
"Today at lunch," he says, "the person I was seated with said every time she drives by one of Greco's signs and sees the 'Gimme five' hand, she remembers: That is the hand that shook the hand of the person who executed her father."
Fernandez has told Greco the Cuba trip was dirty and horrible. He led a petition drive to deny Greco Hillsborough County's prestigious Moral Courage Award. He disagrees with everything about the trip.
"I know that Dickie Greco's got a good heart," he says. "We live in a very complex world. And Teflon is Dick Greco. He has more Teflon than flesh, and he is a funny guy."
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As mayor, Greco was no micromanager.
Friends and associates describe a terrific salesman with a gift for seeing the big project in a weed-covered lot, but someone not terribly focused on details.
Greco also understands business. He knows that when developers are paying interest on borrowed money, every day without a permit is money gone to waste.
So in the 1990s Greco ordered an overhaul to make development review and permitting at City Hall more responsive. A key figure in that effort was the city's housing chief, Steve LaBrake.
In that role, LaBrake, who knew the construction industry and worked long hours, was "very, very important to the administration," former development administrator Fernando Noriega said.
Trouble was, LaBrake also was taking bribes from a construction company that received no-bid contracts from his office. The scheme led to years of bad publicity and federal prison sentences for LaBrake and his wife.
The scandal broke in 2001, but by then Greco and the city had been receiving warnings for five years: internal audits. Disapproving reports from federal housing officials. Letters from a whistle-blower.
Most of those criticisms, including the recommendations of a review committee that Greco appointed in response to a critical internal audit, were referred to LaBrake, who ignored them, or were not acted upon.
Reminded recently that he received warnings about problems in LaBrake's office as early as 1996, Greco said: "I did?"
"He was actually not a department head who answered to me," Greco said, saying he trusted a top lieutenant to handle any problems that came up.
Greco says he "never had any indication that somebody was breaking a law. If I had known it, I would have stopped it from the beginning. Why would you let it go on?"
But it did go on.
In sentencing LaBrake and his wife, U.S. District Judge Richard Lazzara said that "what strikes me about the LaBrakes' situation is that they were part of the culture that permeates Tampa government, where you do me a favor, and I'll do you a favor, even though it violates the public trust."
Greco insists that is not a fair description of the ethical tone at City Hall when he was mayor.
Although Greco was criticized for not firing LaBrake — indeed, for establishing a city policy that allowed him to give LaBrake a 90-day paid leave during the criminal investigation, which he did — Greco says LaBrake was not a friend.
He points out that LaBrake had worked at City Hall for years before he was elected in 1995. Greco says he did not know him before then and didn't socialize with him.
Greco says lawyers told him there was nothing the city could have proved against LaBrake, and he did not want to risk that LaBrake might be cleared and sue the city for wrongful termination. Or that he might commit suicide, like former Hillsborough State Attorney Harry Lee Coe, who shot himself in 2000 amid questions about problem gambling.
"Would you say to a man, 'Oh, maybe you're going to reflect (badly) on me, so I'm going to get rid of you,' and maybe he was innocent, or maybe he went and blew his brains out like Harry Coe did under a bridge?" Greco says.
"I'm me, and I'm honest about who I am. To say that I wouldn't do anything differently doesn't mean that I think I'm perfect. I'm a hell of a long way from being perfect in many respects. But I try to be what I really am and not think about how I'm going to look."
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Greco says he understands why questions about his age come up on the campaign trail, but he considers himself blessed with good health and good genes.
His father died at 71 from stomach cancer. His mother worked full-time until she was 83, then complained until her death at 98 that she never should have retired.
Greco has had cataract surgery but does not wear glasses to read or to see at a distance. He had back surgery about a year ago that he says left him with a little nerve damage in his feet. He wears a hearing aid as a result of his years as a teenage skeet-shooting champion.
But Greco has no health issues, says his wife and physician, Dr. Linda McClintock Greco.
That means no hypertension, no high cholesterol and no diabetes, she says. He has a 33-inch waist. He takes vitamins, but no medicines. His lab results are those of a 40-year-old.
"A healthy 40-year-old," she says.
Like his hair color, Greco has been candid for years about the Botox injections that he gets from his wife, who specializes in antiaging medicine.
When Greco hears concerns about his age, he says they most often come from older voters.
But no worries.
"I can do this job," he says. "If I didn't think I could do it or I was slipping or I couldn't remember this or that, it'd be different."
Times staff writer Colleen Jenkins contributed to this report.