TAMPA — The candidates hoping to be Tampa's next mayor were asked at a recent forum to describe something big they've done, something memorable that showed leadership.
"I could take five days talking about that," said Ed Turanchik, one of the five rivals, kidding, but not much.
Turanchik has spent his adult life reaching for brass rings, not always successfully but often quite memorably. Hang around and he'll tell you all about it, until you see what he sees, or until you inch away, and the weather turns and he remembers he has someplace else to be, too.
He has been dubbed "Commissioner Choo-Choo" for his an unrequited championing of local train transit. He coaxed Tampa to compete for the 2012 Summer Olympics, which settled for London instead.
His Olympic high-jump led to sweeping makeover plans for the blighted neighborhoods ringing Tampa's downtown. When they failed, he set off to rebuild a West Tampa drug hamlet, until the economy tanked.
He'll tell you this: It's precisely such big and lofty pursuits that qualify him to achieve his latest ambition. They demonstrate his "vision," the word he says distinguishes him from the other candidates.
Skeptics puzzle over this, noting each effort fell short. His opponents seem content to let him claim the "v-word," translating it to dreamer rather than doer.
"Unfortunately, he's had several major unsuccessful ventures … all of which gained a great deal of notoriety but went nowhere," said former fellow Hillsborough County Commissioner Jan Platt.
Turanchik says he alone has sought the sort of changes needed to pull Tampa out of its doldrums and toward its vibrant potential. That he has stumbled only gives him an appreciation of challenges.
"I've tended to reach for pretty steep heights," he said. "Sometimes the rocks roll back down on you. But you keep reaching."
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Turanchik got the regular's welcome as he slid into a seat inside Jimbo's Pit Bar-B-Que restaurant last month. Breakfast spilled into the lunch hour, then out to the parking lot as he told his story.
"I have a pretty strong intellectual curiosity and I like intellectual challenges," he said, explaining his zig-zagging path in life. "Once I master something, I like to move on to new challenges."
Turanchik, 55, grew up in the western suburbs of Cleveland, one of three sons born to Lucille and John Turanchik, his father an air traffic controller of Czech descent. He played for his high school basketball team, a lanky 6-foot-4 center who couldn't jump, while earning scholarship-worthy grades.
"He was very studious, a good student," said Mrs. Turanchik, who lives in an apartment three blocks from her son's Beach Park home.
He started college with plans to become a doctor. But after pocketing a biology degree at the University of Cincinnati, he turned to evolutionary ecology for his master's studies, an interest in man's effect on the planet fueled by books such as Paul Ehrlich's the Population Bomb.
He enjoyed sailing the open waters and spelunking into tight spaces in his free time, and for school published a thesis on the ecological genetics of a type of blind cave beetle. But the math and computer work were growing tiresome just as he discovered a new interest.
Turanchik, now a Democrat, volunteered with Republican John Anderson's 1980 presidential campaign. That led to a legislative internship in the Ohio General Assembly. Soon he was on to a law degree at Ohio State University, where he was elected president of the Student Bar Association. A federal court judge clerkship followed.
For his next job, he wanted someplace new, in an up-and-coming city where he could sail year round. Pete Zinober, then a lawyer with the Carlton Fields law firm in Tampa, recruited him.
One sweetener: Turanchik got the firm to cover half the cost of transporting his 29-foot vintage sailboat to Florida.
"He's very passionate about everything he does, which from my standpoint is an important quality," said Zinober, who remains a friend and fan. "You never had to motivate him to get him excited about what he was doing."
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Zinbober left to start his own firm not long after Turanchik arrived, taking his new recruit with him. The young lawyer focused mostly on labor issues, representing the meat-eating, employer side.
He got his granola fix by joining the Sierra Club, which was fighting to ensure new growth laws worked to contain sprawl. Then he helped lead a citizen effort to give the county's land preservation program more buying power by letting it take on debt to purchase property. Voters passed it overwhelmingly.
In 1990, still fresh off the sailboat, Turanchik told his boss he needed to scratch his political itch by running for the County Commission. He said he wanted to challenge fellow Democrat Haven Poe, an incumbent from a well-known political family.
"I said, 'I think you're stark-raving mad,' " Zinober said.
Turanchik won handily, largely by painting his opponent as overly cozy with developers.
As commissioner, he pushed for creation of a regional utility to develop new sources of drinking water. At the time, local governments were locked in contentious legal battles over over-pumped well fields that were turning many lakes dry.
He underscored the area's water needs by joining regional leaders for a photo stunt that required him to climb aboard a boat beached in dried out Big Fish Lake in Pasco County.
"The plan is to cast for bass," said Turanchik, who grew up lake fishing in Ohio. "And if that doesn't work, we'll dig for trout.''
His efforts helped lead to the creation of Tampa Bay Water, which remains controversial to this day due to ongoing problems with a desalination plant and reservoir built under its supervision.
"Those are management problems," said Honey Rand, a friend of Turanchik and author of Water Wars — The Story of People, Politics & Power. "We are better off today that we would have been 15 years ago."
Turanchik also waded into a debate over where to put a new arena for a new National Hockey League franchise. As a contingent pushed for a location near the old Tampa Stadium, he was a leading voice for building it in the Channel District to spur activity near downtown.
"He stuck with it and drove it home," said Fred Karl, who was county administrator at the time. "He sort of took control of it."
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Still, Turanchik remains best known for his high-profile advocacy of things that didn't happen.
As commissioner, he was a big proponent of building commuter rail. He even crafted his own routes, a massive spiderweb using existing CSX lines, and helped bring a demo train to town.
It would be more than a decade after he left office before a rail vote would make the ballot, only to get rejected by a significant margin. Turanchik now says any rail plan that moves forward needs to be more modestly priced and serve more people.
"Anything that gets done needs to get bounded by the reality of scarce resources and lots of competing demands," said Steve Polzin, a Turanchik friend and rail skeptic who works at USF's Center for Urban Transportation Research. "He understands that.''
Turanchik abruptly left the commission in 1998 to steer Tampa's bid to lure the 2012 Olympics, something so grand it seemed like a lark at first. He criss-crossed the region to line up venues, commissioned drawings and hit up donors.
With a mixture of salesmanship and dimple-cheeked enthusiasm, he charmed the fat wallets with promises of a region transformed. His work pulled in $11 million, but Tampa failed to make the list of finalists.
"I knew our odds were long," he said. "I thought it was worth the pursuit."
Turanchik spent months after that on another long-shot known as Civitas. With a group of investors, he helped buy up lots and older homes as part of a massive urban redevelopment plan.
It encompassed nearly 160 acres snugged up against downtown. But commissioners objected to parts of the plan involving public housing and the deal fell apart.
More recently, Turanchik has worked for his own small company building modern bungalows in neglected, working class West Tampa. He has seen home values fall to the point where he can no longer build a house for what a bank would lend a family to buy it.
Westchase developer Bill Bishop, the main muscle behind Civitas, says he understands why people might stereotype Turanchik. But he sees a man who has undergone significant seasoning.
"His idealism remains intact," Bishop said, but "it now exists in someone who has some dirty finger nails and some bloody knuckles."
Times researchers John Martin and Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or firstname.lastname@example.org.