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Oh, no _ not another banquet in Tampa

(ran ET, T editions of A)

The diners were all seated in the Hyatt Regency Ballroom. The wine had been poured, the salads served, the inevitable chicken on its way. Monsignor Laurence Higgins approached the lectern to offer the invocation.

I don't presume to know if God was watching that night last week, but I can guess what he might have said as the beseeching began: "Oh, no _ not him again."

Higgins, the influential Belfast-born pastor of St. Lawrence Church in West Tampa, is a regular on the banquet circuit. If it had not been Higgins, it likely would have been the Rev. Abe Brown, the black preacher who ministers to prison inmates.

The emcee for the dinner to raise money for Prevent Blindness Florida, was former mayor Dick Greco. He told a joke that made it sound as if he still is mayor, while the real mayor, Sandy Freedman, sat directly in front of him, keeping her thoughts to herself.

If it hadn't been Greco, the emcee would have been Tampa Tribune sports columnist Tom McEwen. And if it hadn't been McEwen, it would have been Rick Nafe, executive director of the Tampa Sports Authority.

So goes another night on Tampa's banquet circuit.

Seven hundred fifty people paid $100 a person to spend three hours listening to praise for the honorees: Joe House, the general manager of USAA Insurance, and his wife, Sue. They are philanthropists. They seemingly are on every civic board. They never say no. There always is a video at dinners like this, and sure enough, that night there was a video of friends and family saying loving things about Mr. and Mrs. House.

By the time it was Rick Nafe's turn to speak, he said he wanted to gag. But Nafe was laughing when he said it, and everybody else in the room followed his lead.

Some people I know are crazy for these events. Greco, for one, must find them useful as a pre-mayoral campaign ritual, although he surely won't be giving the same speech on the campaign stump that he'll give next week when he emcees the Miss Tampa Pageant. Bob Buckhorn, aide to Mayor Freedman, attended 270 events last year on behalf of his boss. "The alternative is my own cooking," he said.

I admire people like that. They know how to pose without ever looking insincere. But I trusted the man I saw the other night with his head in his hands, his face a study in boredom, although he knew and admired Mr. and Mrs. House. That was the word that night. People of all sorts turned out because they so liked the stars of the show.

This is a smooth way to raise money. These dinners also are remarkably democratic, open to anybody who can buy a ticket. That makes them a smorgasbord for schmoozers, not just the likes of Greco and Buckhorn, but newcomers who come armed with business cards and ambition and who are hungry to learn this social-minded city.

There are a lot of newcomers. There are a lot of dinners. Cholesterol levels are rising. But that may be the least of the trouble.

Among a few of the civic minded, banquet fatigue is setting in.

"They certainly are all worthy causes, but I wish they could coordinate them from a calendar standpoint," said David Christian, head of the Tampa Bay Black Business Investment Corp. He doesn't want to turn anybody down, but he has to buy his tickets out of his own pocket.

It's getting harder to find a dinner that doesn't cost a hundred bucks. The bigger the town gets, the more numerous the charities are and the bigger the dinners. The bigger the dinners, the more inflated the language heard at them. "It's okay to lend your name to something," said Mary Figg, a former legislator and now a USF executive, "but what about all this celebratory stuff?"

Yes indeed. I used to swear that the dinners became more self-congratulatory as Tampa slipped further into recession. Last week, at the end of the worst northern winter in memory, some big bank that considered relocating its back offices here picked Scranton, Pa., instead. I can't wait for the next banquet. It could pin the platitude meter.

And I can't wait for the day when somebody tries to give a dinner and finds Tampa finally has run out of saints.