Vice President Al Gore came to Tampa Heights on Saturday and said the Clinton administration's economic program could help the nation the same way local housing programs have helped the neighborhood.
Dressed in blue jeans, a faded green sports shirt and black cowboy boots, Gore spent nearly 90 minutes touringthe inner-city neighborhood with Mayor Sandy Freedman.
Once one of the city's richest neighborhoods, Tampa Heights suffered decades of decline before the city, residents, preservationists and others began working in 1987 to restore it.
Teaming up with private, non-profit groups and local banks, the city coordinated programs to help people such as Gwendolyn Henderson buy and renovate homes.
Henderson, a postal employee raising a 3-year-old daughter alone, bought her three-bedroom house through the Mayor's Challenge Fund, which combines private and public financing to help low- and middle-income buyers get low-interest home loans.
"Without that program, I don't think it would have been possible," Henderson told Gore during a tour of the house. "With the program's assistance, I was able to get what I want at an affordable interest rate."
Before Henderson moved in, vagrants had left the two-story house so filthy with human waste that workers had to wear masks to clean it. Now the pink-and-white house, with its airy porch, fireplace and new kitchen, has been fully restored.
"If you had seen it before, you wouldn't have believed it," Freedman said.
Gore said he liked what he did see.
"President Clinton's program is going to take this example and this model and use it as the basis for multiplying the kind of experience you have had," he told Henderson.
During his visit, the vice president used a sledgehammer to knock down part of a brick porch under repair, answered questions from people involved in Tampa's private housing programs and pitched Clinton's economic recovery plan.
"President Bill Clinton has now offered our nation and presented to the Congress an economic plan that will restore our nation's economic health just as the health of this neighborhood is being restored before our very eyes," Gore told dozens of housing volunteers.
The president's program would try to cut the federal budget deficit by combining tax increases with cuts in some federal programs. It proposes to increase spending on programs such as Head Start and to create a national service program to let college students repay education loans by working as police officers, teachers or in other community-service jobs.
Republicans say the plan would raise taxes too much and not cut spending enough. Gore said such critics shy away from making "tough choices" by offering few specific alternatives.
"Either we move upward together, or we slide into decline together." he said. "Either we face the future boldly with courage or we lapse back into gridlock and delay and inaction."
While Gore attacked gridlock, his visit also created it _ on the roads, that is. Police closed off Interstate 275 and major roads between Tampa International Airport and Tampa Heights, leaving motorists stranded in traffic jams for at least 45 minutes.
Tampa was the last of four cities Gore visited on a two-day tour of the South to enlist support for the administration's plan.
Freedman, who was one of Clinton's earliest supporters in Florida, said Tampa's housing programs would benefit directly from passage of Clinton's plan.
She said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development told her last week the city would get an additional $2.4-million in Community Development Block Grant money if Congress approved Clinton's program.
"In the last six years, this money has been going to housing," she said. She added that the program also would include funds for programs to help care for the homeless and modernize public housing.
Gore also announced that the executive committee of the 165,000-member National Association of Home Builders had unanimously endorsed the president's economic package.
The vice president learned of the decision from local developer James Shimberg, who took a red-eye flight from the association's convention in Las Vegas back to Tampa to attend the ceremony.
Shimberg said home builders liked Clinton's plan because it recommends continuation of the low-income housing credit and housing revenue bonds, among other things. The full board of directors of the association is expected to vote on the matter Monday.
"It'll cost home builders a little bit more money to pay the higher taxes," Shimberg said, "but it's going to be worth it in the end if the program works."