TAMPA — She had worked toward this moment for four years.
Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio stood to the side, hands clasped beneath her chin, watching as Hillsborough commissioners voted last month to put a sales tax referendum on the November ballot to help pay for light rail.
The vote sets the stage for Iorio's final year in office. As one of the area's most visible champions of light rail, she'll be working to persuade voters to approve the 1-cent tax.
"In terms of public policy issues that I care about, this one is at the very top," Iorio said. "I'm going to spend my last year focused on this issue. I'm going to give speeches throughout the county on it. I'm going to explain what it's all about."
And expect her to make the pitch even on occasions when rail, transit and the tax are not explicitly on the agenda.
"For right now, it will be part of every presentation I make," she said.
That's been the case for much of the last 12 months.
Iorio's State of the City speech in March focused solely on the importance of light rail to Hillsborough County, both as a transportation alternative and an economic development tool.
Even at a news conference about Tampa's winning bid for the 2012 Republican National Convention, Iorio jokingly offered to answer questions about mass transit.
"I recall this from my supervisor of elections days, when we were selling touch screen voting machines. There is just no substitute for going out and talking to as many groups as possible and leaving behind the information," she said. "If you can explain it to a group of 50, those 50 go back and explain it to their family, and there's a tremendous ripple effect."
It was in 2006 that Iorio sent a "white paper" to hundreds of regional business and political leaders urging them to dust off old light rail plans.
As the momentum built, she began talking about a 1-cent sales tax referendum to help pay for the lines.
Hillsborough commissioners had rejected the idea in the past. To win their support this time around, Iorio offered compromises.
Initially, she wanted all of the sales tax money to go to rail and expanded bus service, but settled for three-quarters.
In negotiating how the money for roadwork would be divided among Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City, she accepted less for Tampa, reasoning that the first leg of the rail would be in her city.
When it was time for the Tampa City Council to vote on the agreement, she made an appearance before the board — something Iorio typically does only when presenting her annual budget.
David Singer, a lawyer at Holland & Knight, is campaign manager for Moving Hillsborough Forward, the political action committee formed to build support for the tax.
Iorio, he said, is critical to the effort.
"I consider her to be one of our key messengers," Singer said. "She is a very credible and important voice in the community."
Political consultant Chris Ingram said no one person can make or break the Moving Hillsborough Forward campaign.
"Collectively, a number of influential political leaders will continue to talk about it," Ingram said, noting that County Commissioner Mark Sharpe also has been out front on the issue.
On the other hand, Iorio has a loyal following, he said. "She has some influence. A lot of people will follow her on that."
And she has the added advantage of not being a candidate in 2010.
"She doesn't have anything to lose," Ingram said, noting that other political leaders might prefer not to be defined by the rail issue for fear it will hurt their election chances.
Iorio is confident the referendum will pass.
"There are many people who say you'll never get the voters to agree. I say that's not true," she said. "I've been out talking to literally thousands of people in my job as mayor, and the interactions I have with such a wide variety of people show the majority of people are really for this. They really want it."
If the referendum passes in November, the hard work really begins with implementation of the rail and bus plans, she said.
And if it doesn't pass?
"We view it as just a bump in the road," Iorio said. "We analyze why it didn't pass, reformat the plan, and get it back through the County Commission and put it back on the ballot in 2012."
Janet Zink can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.