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Improbable victory gives Poe little joy

It's been a tough six months for William F. Poe.

Many of his friends turned on him. The newspaper that once thought of him as a great mayor repeatedly questioned his motives and his mental state. Even his family and close associates secretly worried that he was fighting for a lost cause.

But Bill Poe never was Don Quixote.

And Friday his not-so-impossible dream came true.

A judge agreed with Poe that sales tax money can't go for a new stadium that is for all practical purposes owned by a private company.

Poe wins.

The Tampa Bay Bucs, the NFL's most legendary losers, drop another one. So do the political leaders who gave away the farm and the land below it to keep the Bucs playing in Tampa.

So do the Tampa Tribune editorial writers who again this week called Poe's case "bizarre" and his arguments "a smoke screen."

And the taxpayers? It depends.

Voters did say they want the Bucs to continue playing in a new stadium in Tampa. But few read the lease agreement. Poe did, and he thought it was unconstitutional.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Sam Pendino read the same lease and heard two weeks of legal arguments from both sides and agreed with Poe.

Pendino's ruling was shocking not for what it said but that he actually made such an seemingly unpopular decision. Most courthouse observers thought the local judge would leave the hard call up to the appeals court.

But Pendino sided with Poe and, in doing so, he turned back all the amateur legal minds and many professional ones who had scoffed at Poe's case as nothing more than a strange whim by an aging insurance man.

Don't listen for the explosion of champagne corks. Poe won't be celebrating the decision.

In court Friday, he accepted his victory the same way he presented his case last fall. He was somber. A long-faced man in a dark suit with little trace of victory in his expression.

His son, Bill Poe Jr., said that even away from the glare of the TV lights his dad wasn't gloating.

"He said he was relieved and he was happy for the people of the community, but he wasn't elated," Poe Jr. said.

It's been a painful time for Poe and his family.

"He's been called a lot of names recently in public and elsewhere," Poe Jr. said. "I wouldn't call this vindication. It just says he knew what he was doing."

Given his track record, perhaps people shouldn't have been so quick to bet against Bill Poe. He's a millionaire and a man who has climbed to the top of Tampa's political, business and social circles, but none of it was handed to him.

He grew up in Seminole Heights, both economically and geographically distant from Tampa's elite. Poe built his insurance business and his political career with hard work and shrewd decision-making.

He is 65 now and heavier than when he was Tampa's mayor 20 years ago. At that time, stress, cigarettes and caffeine almost killed him. Since the heart attack and stroke, his speech sometimes has been halting and his short-term memory slightly impaired.

When he came out against the stadium deal last summer, even some friends suggested that Poe wasn't the man he used to be. He'd lost it, they said.

But when we talked last fall, Poe said the naysayers only strengthened his resolve:

"They say I must be some kind of a dumb guy. I must be trying to hurt the public. Lose the Super Bowl. They say I don't have a chance to win, but I suggest the exact opposite is true."

Friday a judge proved him right. Another man might have gone back to his friends and acquaintances to say "I told you so."

Instead, Bill Poe went fishing.