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Tampa's nonpartisan mayor's race attracts parties' interest

TAMPA — Tampa city elections are officially nonpartisan, but you don't even have to scratch the surface in the mayor's runoff to see streaks of Republican red and Democratic blue.

First the candidates, who are not really talking up their party credentials.

Rose Ferlita is a Republican who won a partisan election to the Hillsborough County Commission and led Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign in Hillsborough.

Bob Buckhorn is a Democrat who has worked on campaigns in Hillsborough going back to John Glenn's presidential bid and is aligned with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. The former City Council member is also a fan of Giuliani's, especially his views on crime.

Now the parties. At the county level, both are forwarding information to those on their e-mail distribution lists about how they can volunteer to work telephone banks, wave signs or walk neighborhoods for candidates in their party.

On its online calendar of events, the Hillsborough GOP includes notes for Ferlita events like "she needs you now" and "let's turn Tampa red."

Hillsborough GOP chairwoman Deborah Cox-Roush said she wasn't aware that the local party offered this kind of assistance in city elections, but it makes sense.

"As chairman of the county party, I would be amiss not to let our Republicans know who the registered Republicans are in the race, and that's (City Council candidate) Chris Hart and Rose Ferlita," she said.

Hillsborough Democratic Party chairman Chris Mitchell said local Democrats also are passing on information about how people can volunteer or support Democrats in the runoffs as well as emphasizing the importance of getting out to vote.

Given the prominence of the mayor's office, not just in Tampa, but in Central Florida, it's no surprise that the political parties are interested in the outcome of the race, Mitchell said.

"The reality of this situation is the I-4 (corridor) is very important," he said. And it's only natural that the GOP would want a Republican mayor to be its voice in the Tampa Bay area and to welcome the 2012 Republican National Convention to Tampa. "They understand the importance in this race, and we understand the importance in this race."

Buckhorn and Ferlita say they welcome votes and support from everyone, but they are not interested in making the race a partisan contest.

"That would be very sad," Ferlita said. "Tampa politics, as far as I'm concerned, has always been nonpartisan. I think that serves the citizens well. Solid waste, potholes, government core services from the city of Tampa to its constituents is all about service and not about party. I have always felt that. That has been my strength. I certainly have a great deal of support from Democrats, Republicans and (voters with) non-party affiliations."

Buckhorn noted that in a nonpartisan race he's prohibited from taking money from any party, but he welcomes anyone's vote or volunteer time.

"I enjoy as much Republican as Democratic support," he said. "It's who I am."

It is within the parties' rights to offer support to a candidate, but Buckhorn said he wants all sides to stick to the issues.

"What I hope happens is that we continue to run a positive campaign," he said.

Already, however, there are indications that the mayor's race has caught the attention of partisans both inside and outside Tampa, and not in a way that everyone welcomes.

On the Saturday before last week's election, Tampa voters found three fliers in their mailboxes from third-party groups. One that attacked Dick Greco came from a group with connections to GOP political activists at the state level. Another attacking Ferlita was sponsored by a Tampa-based group whose treasurer is a local Democrat.

The third was a flier identifying Ferlita and Republican candidates in each City Council race. It came from a group called the Florida Future Leaders Fund, with a Miami return address. The fund is not registered as a committee with either the Florida Division of Elections or the Federal Elections Commission, making it difficult to tell who is behind it. Cox-Roush said she did not know anything about the flier.

State-level Democrats, as well, have taken notice of the mayor's race.

"Congrats Bob Buckhorn, the next Democratic mayor of Tampa," Florida Democratic Party spokesman Eric Jotkoff tweeted as election-night returns put Buckhorn in the runoff. "Look forward to helping him win the general."

So far, the Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Office has received no complaints about partisan involvement in city elections, only the occasional question about why the ballot doesn't say anything about a candidate's affiliation, according to spokesman Travis Abercrombie.

Former County Commissioner Chris Hart, a Republican now in a runoff with City Council member Yvonne Yolie Capin, a Democrat, said voters in this race have rarely brought up party affiliations with him.

"I've hardly heard anybody mention it," he said. "It's been kind of pleasant."

Times staff writers Kim Wilmath and Janet Zink contributed to this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.

Party affiliation

Tampa remains largely Democratic, but the percentage of voters with no party affiliation has risen over the last four city elections.

Democrats Republicans Other

1999 76,861 (56.3%) 40,145 (29.4%) 19,453 (14.3%)

2003 80,816 (52%) 45,055 (29%) 29,690 (19%)

2007 85,039 (49.2%) 47,654 (27.6%) 39,981 (23.2%)

2011 95,980 (50.3%) 51,377 (27%) 43,272 (22.7%)

Source: Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Office

Absentee ballots

The Supervisor of Elections Office last week mailed out 15,049 absentee ballots for the city's March 22 runoff elections. Voters who want to vote by mail in the runoff can request an absentee ballot at www.VoteHillsborough.org or can call (813) 744-5900. The deadline to request an absentee ballot is 5 p.m. March 16. Absentee ballots must be returned to the supervisor's office by 7 p.m. on election day. Although voters requested about 15,000 absentee ballots for this past Tuesday's city elections, only about two-thirds of those ballots were returned.

Tampa's nonpartisan mayor's race attracts parties' interest 03/05/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 5, 2011 10:05pm]
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