The field has now been set for Tampa's March election for mayor, and all five serious candidates offer a rich experience. But this race is less about looking backward and more about who has the vision, agenda and leadership skills to move the city and region forward. Voters need to hear specifics about how the next mayor would balance the budget, grow the economy and make the Tampa Bay area a more attractive place to live, work, play and do business.
The five major candidates who qualified Friday all know their way around local government. Bob Buckhorn served as an aide to then-Mayor Sandra Freedman before winning election to the Tampa City Council. Rose Ferlita served on the council, too, before winning a Hillsborough County Commission seat. Dick Greco has served as mayor four times. Tom Scott was a county commissioner who jumped to the City Council. Ed Turanchik served on the County Commission before leaving in the 1990s to develop parts of urban Tampa. All five have followings in the city and understand the process of governing. They also appreciate the role that Tampa plays in shaping a course for the region.
The challenge for voters in the compact time frame of the seven-week campaign is to look beyond the vague talk from these household names to find meaningful differences in policy and personality. The city faces tough choices for the foreseeable future. Declining property values forced the outgoing mayor, Pam Iorio, to cut the budget and city work force and raid cash reserves to maintain essential services. With no significant recovery in sight, the next mayor will not be able to so readily turn to reserves to avoid raising taxes or cutting more services. He or she must convince the employees' unions, especially police and fire, that City Hall is strapped and cannot afford to continue being so generous. The mayor also will need to avoid getting bogged down with small-bore issues. The city still needs to invest in roads, utilities and other infrastructure if it hopes to grow.
Turanchik has proposed the most extensive agenda so far. He would hold the line on fees and taxes, suspend pay raises for city employees and offer creative ways to fund parks, housing and other programs. His opponents have picked off their pet issues, too, and there is plenty of time before the March 1 election for the entire field to lay out broader platforms. But voters want to see a balance between the basics and a broader vision. The candidates need to show leadership skills, offer a relevant narrative and demonstrate their commitment to make City Hall responsive and transparent.
One benefit of having so many well-known candidates in the race who have contributed over decades to make Tampa the city it has become is the chance to draw more voters into March's electoral process. The next mayor could have more eyes on him or her than any who held the office in modern times. That makes it more important for the candidates to get out and listen. They already are known personalities. Voters are not looking for introductions, but a sense of how each would grow as mayor in the challenging years ahead.