Thursday, June 21, 2018
Politics

Marco Rubio, still seeking Tampa Bay home, has staff meet constituents at libraries, coffee shops

TAMPA — It's been two months since a landlord notified Sen. Marco Rubio that the lease on his Tampa office would not be renewed because of weekly demonstrations staged there.

The Miami Republican is still looking for a Tampa Bay home base.

The search has been hindered, in part, by a tight rental market and Rubio's newfound reputation as a lightning rod for activists galvanized in opposition to the agenda of President Donald Trump.

Meantime, Rubio's two-person local staff is improvising, meeting with constituents at coffee shops and libraries.

BACK STORY: Rubio is asked to leave Tampa office over disruption from weekly protests

David Higgins, a member of progressive activist group Indivisible Fl-13, met with a Rubio staff assistant Tuesday at the main St. Petersburg Library branch to deliver a letter urging Rubio to investigate Trump's ties to Russia. During the meeting, Higgins asked about the office search.

The staffer, Shauna Johnson, said the biggest obstacle arises when would-be landlords find out why Rubio's staff had to leave its former office, according to Higgins.

"I said, 'Just to clarify, what's the issue?'" Higgins said. "She said, 'Protests.' "

Finding a site that meets security standards was also cited as a factor.

Christina Mandreucci, a Rubio spokeswoman, said only that the staff is still searching for a new location in Tampa and in Jacksonville, where the landlord also declined to renew the lease because of frequent demonstrations.

Mandreucci declined to answer specific questions about the search.

"Our staff in the Tampa region continues to meet with constituents in places ranging from coffee shops for one-on-one meetings, to reserved conference rooms in local libraries for larger meetings," Mandreucci said in an email statement. "Depending on our constituents' needs, our staff is always accommodating and willing to meet in a location most convenient for them."

•••

The owner of Bridgeport Center, a gleaming, nine-story office center at 5201 Kennedy Blvd., notified Rubio's office Feb. 1 that the lease would not be renewed and that Rubio had 30 days to leave. The reason: Weekly demonstrations by activists seeking to pressure Rubio on a variety of issues had become too disruptive to other tenants and too costly for the company, Jude Williams, president of America's Capital Partners, told the Tampa Bay Times last month.

The demonstrators gathered on the public sidewalk just outside the front entrance to the building, chanting and evoking honks from passing motorists. Other tenants complained, Williams said. News coverage of the decision put local landlords and property management companies on notice.

That's understandable, said Chris Butler, managing director for Tampa-based commercial real estate firm Franklin Street. Butler specializes in office space leasing throughout the Tampa Bay area.

"When you have a multi-tenant office building, the landlord and the property management company have an obligation to all tenants," Butler said. "They all pay rent. Everyone needs to get along and when you have a situation like that, it has to be addressed in the best interests of all tenants."

Another challenge for Rubio's staff is what Butler called a "landlord's market" for office space in Tampa Bay. Leasing fees are at a high water mark and vacancy rates are low, Butler said, so landlords can afford to be picky.

That said, Butler figures there are plenty of landlords who would love to have Rubio as a tenant.

"You just have to find the right fit, because based on what has happened, there is obviously some risk of disruption and interruption to the other tenants," he said.

Because of the potential friction with private landlords and their other tenants, many members of Congress opt for space in public buildings, said former U.S. Rep. David Jolly, a Republican who represented a portion of Pinellas County from 2014 to January of this year, when he lost the seat to Democrat Charlie Crist.

U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, for example, has an office in the Sam Gibbons Federal Court House in downtown Tampa.

Jolly had three offices, one at St. Petersburg College, a state institution. It's easier to handle demonstrations in public buildings because of existing security, said Jolly, who recalls demonstrations at the SPC office during his tenure.

"We had a sheriff's deputy assigned to our office who could be on site to make sure the protestors could exercise their constitutional rights but at the same time the office could maintain its daily function and accept visitors," Jolly said.

Public buildings also tend to be more easily accessible for constituents who want to walk in for help, he said.

Among his three offices, at least 10 constituents who walked in without an appointment each day had substantive concerns that required opening an inquiry with a federal agency such as the Veterans or Social Security administrations or requiring other kinds of direct assistance, Jolly said.

"The people who seek to visit an office are disproportionately either elderly or of limited means," Jolly said. "They don't have Internet or email or choose not to use it, or are simply accustomed to filling out paperwork in person."

For them, Jolly said, "not having an office would be a real challenge."

Once Rubio finds an office, he'll have to submit the location for a legal review that can take weeks, Jolly said. Once the office is approved, it takes more time for Senate information technology staff to travel to the site to set up a secure computer network.

•••

A message on the web page for Rubio's Tampa office tells visitors the staff is in the process of relocating and directs constituents who need assistance to call a number listed.

Members of Indivisible Fl-13 arranged their Tuesday meeting with Johnson, the Rubio staffer, by email, Higgins said. After some discussion about where to meet, Johnson suggested the main library branch at 3745 9th Ave N.

After everyone arrived, the members waited with Johnson at a counter for staff to direct them to a meeting room. The library staff wasn't sure which room to put them in, then led them to an auditorium, Higgins said. A worker let them into the darkened space and said it would be take a few minutes to set up some tables. To make the most of the 20 minutes Johnson had allotted for the meeting, the group decided to forgo the tables and set up a circle of folding chairs.

The six members handed over a letter urging Rubio, who sits on the Senate's Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees, to support an independent investigation of the Trump administration's ties to Russia. The group made sure to reiterate their desire for Rubio to hold a town hall meeting. He so far has refused to do so.

Higgins said the members were grateful for a respectful and productive meeting.

"We were really happy with the meeting, even if the circumstances were kind of awkward," he said.

Meanwhile, the demonstrations in Tampa go on.

Activists who had flocked to the sidewalk in front of Rubio's office have been gathering at the intersection of Dale Mabry Highway and Kennedy, said Michael Broache, co-founder of Indivisible Tampa.

"It's a location where we can visibly demonstrate our concerns," Broache said. "We haven't had any problems or concerns."

Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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