TAMPA — In less than eight weeks, Tampa voters will elect a new mayor, remake the City Council and chart the city's course for years to come.
The odds are good Tampa's elected leadership will become more white and more male. And those leaders are certain to face familiar problems: A sputtering economy, high unemployment, a flood of foreclosures and a shrinking tax base.
All set the stage for a historic election on March 1.
"This is a defining moment," says former Mayor Sandy Freedman.
After eight years, Mayor Pam Iorio is leaving office because of term limits. The next mayor, Iorio says, will have to do more than set the agenda at City Hall.
"The mayor sets the tone for the broader community," she says. "People care about who the mayor of Tampa is. They might live in Largo, they might live up in Wesley Chapel, but they want a good mayor of Tampa, because the mayor of Tampa represents them to the outside world. So it's always going to be important."
Tampa's strong-mayor government gives the holder of that office sweeping authority over the budget, personnel and public safety, plus city relations with neighborhoods, business, the Legislature, other local governments, MacDill Air Force Base and the University of South Florida.
"Every eight years in Tampa, because of the way things work with our term-limited mayor, we have what has tended to be a major sea change," says Scott Paine, a University of Tampa government professor and former City Council member.
"We rarely elect a new mayor who is following the same path as the old mayor," he says. "So inherently this is a now-what kind of election."
Tampa's new leader will have to make do with diminished resources. The city's tax base — derived from property tax revenue — is still being sapped by a sickly real estate market.
That's not all. The city expects to make a multimillion-dollar contribution from its general fund to cover operating losses in the parking division, must address lagging revenue in the water department and balance the need to provide essential services, reduce costs and meet pension obligations.
"The belt tightening at City Hall has to continue, and this is after the mayor has eliminated a lot of positions and cut a lot from the budget," says former U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, who contemplated a run for mayor. "It's going to take a very hands-on mayor making some very tough choices."
In addition to choosing a new mayor, voters will put at least two new faces on the City Council. Chairman Thomas Scott is leaving to run for mayor, and council member Gwen Miller is leaving due to term limits.
With all seven council seats up for election, there could be more new members. Since being appointed to the council in July, Yvonne Yolie Capin and Curtis Stokes have made the decision, controversial in some circles, to seek election to the council after pledging not to run. Council member Mary Mulhern has seen police and fire union endorsements go to an opponent.
If a majority of council seats turn over, it could tilt the balance on rezonings and land-use decisions that pit developers against neighborhoods.
"People call the Tampa City Council weak, but on business investment and land development, they're in control," says lobbyist Todd Pressman, who represents clients before the council.
If the council gets a reputation as hostile to development, it would be the death knell for business investment, he says.
Others want a council more attuned to neighborhoods.
"We have people who seem more interested in politics than in taking care of the city," says Susan Long, a past president of the Old Seminole Heights Neighborhood Association.
For example, Long says, look at the council's refusal to put a proposed panhandling ban on the March 1 ballot at the request of a South Tampa neighborhood leader.
"Everybody I talked to says, 'Jiminy Christmas, why don't they just tell us that we're stupid and we should go away and they don't want to be bothered?' " she says.
The City Council also could get younger. Its average age now is 62. By comparison, the average age of nonincumbent council candidates is under 40.
In other ways, however, Tampa's elected leadership could become less diverse.
Of the seven candidates for mayor, former County Commissioner Rose Ferlita is the only woman. In City Council races, there are only four women — Capin, Mulhern, Julie Ann Jenkins and Tracee Judge — but two dozen men.
USF political scientist Susan MacManus says anecdotal evidence suggests that a "really contentious election like the one you just had" tends to discourage some women from running.
While the field in the mayor's race includes two black candidates, Scott and Arthur Richardson, the City Council stands to become less racially diverse.
There are now three black council members: Scott, Miller and Stokes. But in council races, black candidates are running for just two seats. One is Miller's citywide District 1 seat, where Stokes is a candidate. The other is Scott's east Tampa District 5 seat, where the black candidates are Judge, Stanley Gloster, Herold Lord and Frank Reddick.
Ybor City businessman Carrie West, the rare openly gay candidate in city politics, also is running in District 5, so his election would make the council more diverse in a different way.
The field of candidates could change by the end of qualifying on Friday. But observers say a council that is more white and more male could mean that some voices will struggle to be heard.
"In our community we have great diversity," says former state Rep. Sara Romeo. But "if we don't have that diversity represented in our leadership, we're going to have some issues."
Even with so much at stake, there's no guarantee that many voters will care. Turnout in Tampa's past three elections was 25 percent in 1999, 33 percent in 2003 and 15.6 percent in 2007. (If you want to vote in the March 1 nonpartisan election, you must register to vote by Jan. 31.)
So far, some candidates say they sense a clear theme: that creating jobs is vital, so the city must make itself more user-friendly to business.
But after a tiring year — and a corrosive political season — it could take voters time to regroup.
"What happens is that citizens have voter fatigue after November," says City Council candidate Seth Nelson. "Then you have Thanksgiving and the holidays, and no one really gets focused on this race until the second week of January."