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"Teflon' may be cracking for Freedman

Mayor Sandy Freedman doesn't just survive controversy. She sails. With a smile and a side step, Freedman for four years has dodged controversies that would mire most politicians: tense race relations, tax increases, quiet infighting among the city's most influential business people and a flagging city economy.

These days, though, things may be getting a little sticky for Tampa's Teflon Mayor.

For the first time, she faces a tangle of problems that together might spell trouble as she heads into a campaign for re-election in March.

Freedman faces a rebellious City Council, unsupportive police and fire unions and rocky financial times that have forced a lean budget.

She also oversees an ongoing debate between the city's black community and the city's powerful elite, factions that long have been considered among her bases of support. Members of both sides have been angered by recent remarks that Freedman has made during negotiations.

Freedman's supporters and political analysts see the problems as temporary and predict they will blow over by the March election. They note her campaign is bolstered by strong support from community groups and a large cache of campaign funds.

While political foe Larry Smith sees Freedman as "aloof," community activist Margaret Vizzi couldn't disagree more. She says Freedman, whom she actively will support in March, is "responsive and in touch with the people."

Freedman says she expects an occasional bump in the political road. In an interview Friday, she did not seem overly concerned about the recent developments, sounding decidedly more philosophical than


"When I took the job, I realized that I was going to have to make some tough decisions," she said. "With any decision, some people will be unhappy."

The bumps in the road

Freedman has made some people unhappy in the last week.

On Thursday, the City Council overrode her veto of a budget line to spend $1.7-million on the city fire department _ the first time a mayor has had a veto overridden in two decades.

On Friday, the city firefighters union, which is becoming a political force, strongly suggested it would not support the mayor in the election.

"Am I displeased with the mayor? Yes, I am," said Council member Smith, who is running against her in March. "I think this is a significant statement by council that they are going to be a significant part of policy-setting in the city. Council is going to be as strong as it wants to be.

"I don't think she's so Teflon. I just don't think she's so secure."

Smith's optimism may be tempered by the city charter, which mandates a strong-mayor form of government.

For example, Freedman ultimately won the budget fight by vowing not to spend the money, a right she has under the charter. Even with the law on her side, the aftershocks have just started.

"I think this is going to hurt her politically," said Bob Weiss, president of the 500-member firefighters union. "She's going to lose our support."

His group has played an active role in several campaigns in the last year. He promises it will play an even greater one in the March election.

"We're not going to let this issue die," he said.

Freedman's relations with the police union, already strained by a 1988 budget dispute, continue to be rocky. Robert Sheehan, president of the Police Benevolent Association, said recently that his group probably will not support the mayor in her re-election bid.

Also consider:

That Freedman annoyed leaders of the Tampa Coalition, the city's voluntary commission on race relations, when she charged they needed a higher profile and needed to take a more active role in resolving disputes.

That Freedman angered some black community activists when she didn't openly lobby and support demands to fully integrate Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla. Freedman instead lobbied behind the scenes.

That at the same time, she angered some white people during those lobbying sessions when she insisted they move forward on race relations and the creation of a new multicultural parade to replace the canceled Gasparilla festival.

Supporters say survival is sure

Mary Repper, a political analyst, said Freedman will survive.

She noted Freedman has raised more money than any candidate and she faces no strong opposition.

"If the competition does not get any stiffer, she is going to waltz into this job," Repper predicted.

She says even though the firefighters, the police union and certain factions in the community may be annoyed at recent action, they must "consider the political reality" at election time.

"Where else are they going to go?" Repper asked. "They are going to have to deal with her. It's in their own self-interest not to get too crazy."

Freedman has raised almost $229,000, while her main opponent, Smith, has raised about $17,000.

Repper and City Council Chairman Lee Duncan also disputed that the council's veto override "sends a signal."

"I don't know if its a problem for her," said Duncan, who cast the sole vote to support the veto. He noted each council member is up for re-election in March.

John Dunn, Freedman's spokesman, said the average resident has not stormed City Hall protesting Freedman's veto of more money for the fire department.

"We have not had a single call," he said. "This is simply a dispute between management and the union."

His statements are bolstered by members of community groups, who do not seem to care about in-house disputes among Freedman, the union and the City Council.

Mrs. Vizzi, president of the Tampa Homeowners and Association of Neighborhoods, said she will support Freedman in March. Her umbrella groups represent 33 neighborhood groups comprising at least 59,000 residents, Mrs. Vizzi said.

Dunn said Freedman has tried to build support among taxpayers rather than merely an inside circle of influential union leaders and politicians.

For example, she has created a Peer-to-Peer program, an effort by the city and homeowners groups to help improve neighborhoods. Each month, she visits a different homeowners group.

"I think she is aware of many problems in the city that most mayors were not aware of or did not want to be aware of," Mrs. Vizzi said. "I think she has truly tried to address these problems."

Dunn said Freedman could have made the union and council happy by approving the $1.7-million, but "there was nothing political about this decision."

"I have to look at myself in the mirror every morning," Freedman said. "And I have to do what's right for everybody in the city."