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Connect Tampa Bay director foresees more transportation options

Kevin Thurman, left, is executive director of Connect Tampa Bay. He’s eager to have transportation work for the community, through light rail and expanded bus service. Also shown, founding board members Brandie Miklus, Brian Willis and Brian Seel. 

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

Kevin Thurman, left, is executive director of Connect Tampa Bay. He’s eager to have transportation work for the community, through light rail and expanded bus service. Also shown, founding board members Brandie Miklus, Brian Willis and Brian Seel. 

Kevin Thurman, who worked as an Internet marketing adviser for the election campaigns of Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy and Barack Obama, was looking for something different when he moved to Tampa with his girlfriend, Ali Glisson, spokeswoman for the city of Tampa. The 34-year-old Fordham University graduate quickly realized that the only convenient way to get around Tampa Bay area is by car, and he envisioned the region going the way of his congested hometown, Redlands, Calif., near Los Angeles. So he joined new friends in an effort to expand public transportation and now serves as executive director of Connect Tampa Bay. He talked to Times staff writer Philip Morgan about his political work and his transportation efforts in Tampa.

Though the meetings you had for the Clinton and Obama campaigns were not attended by the candidates, you did meet with Ted Kennedy. What was he like?

He (was) the most lovely guy in the entire world . . . For everybody who really worked on his staff and worked for him a very long time, he painted them a picture. I didn't get one; I was a consultant. . . . He loved painting seascapes . . . My friend has this beautiful painting that Ted Kennedy did . . .

When we talked about stuff, he was very quick to understand that this (the Internet) was the next thing, that he was far more adaptable to that kind of stuff. A lot of times one of the hardest things, whether it's in politics and tactics or whether it's in policy, one of the hardest things we have to deal with is adapting to that change fast enough. One of the things that was interesting to see was here was this guy who's been in politics for decades, been in the Senate for decades, and he understood that things were changing and he had to grasp it and he had to figure it out.

You also worked for Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa, the current the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, who made a bid for the presidency but ended his campaign in 2008. Any anecdotes?

When he stopped being a governor . . . the first thing he did was jump in the front seat of the car so that he could drive, because he had been governor for eight years and wasn't allowed to drive . . . .And so we're sitting there, we're driving to his announcement . . . and here he is, driving the car, the happiest man I had ever seen in my entire life . . .

When I think about that moment, I think about the fact that we have always associated cars with what they are, which is freedom. And here is the guy who is governor of a state, has all this power, and didn't have the freedom to drive himself around.

For mobility around the Tampa Bay area, your organization is calling for a light rail system?

We have proposed that there should be rail transit, but the important thing that everybody needs to understand is what we actually want is more options. I mean, it's a fundamental conversation of freedom and economic opportunity . . . If I wanted to leave this office and go somewhere else right now, I only have a couple of options, but I have significantly more options — because I have a bus service here — than, say, somebody in Brandon does, because they only have bus service every hour.

So, if you live in Brandon and you have a bus service that's coming every hour or maybe every half hour, depending on where you're going, your freedom to move, your freedom to go to work, your freedom to go play or go shopping or anything like that, or learn, all the things that are involved in society, is limited by transportation. So I think that the first thing that everybody needs to understand, we're looking to make sure that everybody in Hillsborough county — everybody in Tampa Bay, eventually — has more than one option to get around.

What happens if the Tampa Bay area does nothing?

Get on a plane and fly to Ontario (California) airport and drive to Ontario-San Bernardino-Riverside, which is where I grew up. Check it out. It's got beautiful mountains, everything else like that, but there's no transit. And there's traffic up the — ah, crazy. People live over two hours from where they work. They spend even more on transportation than we do here.

Traffic is not a serious, huge problem here compared to, say, if you went to Washington D.C. tomorrow. But what we do have a problem is, we don't have any other options. So as we grow, we're just going to grow out. So instead of having this beautiful, special place that we live in now, that people in Plant City can manufacture things and south of there can grow strawberries, and we can have a festival in one part of the county, and then we can have an urban park and celebration happening every weekend . . . that's what we have right now.

If we don't solve our transportation problems, if we don't give people options, we're going to have an economy that stays low-wage, just like where I came from, and we're also going to have to pave over eastern Hillsborough county.

What do you do for fun?

I spend time with my girlfriend, Ali, and my dog, Eisenhower . . . he's a bichon-Shih Tzu.

There's that, and I really like beer, craft beer. I'm a big, huge fan of Cigar City and that kind of stuff. . . I still love movies. I love living as close as I do to that beautiful Tampa Theatre that we have downtown . . . I watch soccer, I'm a huge soccer fan. This is going to sound like I have an alcoholism problem, but you will find me at MacDinton's at 9 a.m. on a Saturday or Sunday morning to watch my favorite team, Arsenal. They're from London, they play in the English Premier League.

But I enjoy all types of sports. I'm a baseball fan; I'm reconciled to the fact that I've slowly but surely turned myself into a Rays fan. I think my brother, who is an Angels fan, may disown me soon.

You predict that one day your kids will laugh at what you did at Connect Tampa Bay. What do you mean?

Because it will look like people who fought smoking in the 1960s. They're like, "Well, why are people smoking in offices and doctors' offices anyway?''

My kids are going to be, like, "Why did everybody have only one way to get around? That just sounds stupid.''

Sunday Conversation is edited for clarity and brevity. Philip Morgan can be reached at pmorgan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3435.

Connect Tampa Bay director foresees more transportation options 03/21/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 25, 2014 4:18pm]
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