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Greco at home in a crowd

Dick Greco is a man who has never had a bad day.

He simply won't allow it.

That's why he was so confounded by what he found along the river one day last spring.

Police had called Greco to the Hillsborough River, where a janitor from the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center had just cut down a man who had hanged himself from a tree.

The man's body lay on the grass beneath a blue sky on a day _ sunny, mid-70s, a hint of a breeze _ that could not have been more Florida perfect.

"Why would anyone want to kill themselves today?" Greco asked.

Greco's unrelenting optimism and zest for life have made him one of the most popular mayors in Tampa history. At 65, he is poised to win a fourth term and hold the office longer than anyone. He faces no serious opposition, a first in modern Tampa history. He says it's his last bid for public office, capping a political career launched three decades ago from the counter of his father's Ybor City hardware store.

So what explains his amazing popularity, which cuts across party lines?

He hasn't bridged the racial divide, cleaned up the roughest neighborhoods or pulled the city back from a financial precipice. New buildings, safer streets and more parks might explain it.

But if you could spend a day with the mayor, you would see that the source of his popularity is much more simple.

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At 6 a.m. Greco rolled out of bed, showered, dressed, skimmed a couple of newspapers and gulped down a cup of coffee. Then he stepped into his sleek black Lincoln and headed to work.

His first appointment was at 8:15 a.m. at Faedo's Bakery in West Tampa.

If Greco had a throne, it might be the vinyl chair by the bakery's plate glass window, within stretching distance of the guava jelly sweet rolls.

Here Greco is king.

As he sat by the window, sunlight brightening the whole bakery, the smell of baking bread and Cuban coffee mixing in the air, customers flocked around him, reaching out with hands thick from decades of work. They hugged, they kissed, they sat down to talk, in Spanish and English, about nothing and about everything.

To them, the explanation for Greco's popularity is easy: Charisma.

"Some people have it, some people don't," said Virgilio Fabian, a 90-year-old former cigar roller.

Fabian is a member of the West Tampa Political Club, which has been meeting at Faedo's as long as anyone can remember. Faedo had asked Greco to stop by, and at one point he pulled out Polaroid pictures of potholes and overgrown shrubs on nearby Main Street.

"Wow, look at that monster," Greco said about a huge bush. "I'll get somebody to check it out. Thanks for letting me know."

Fabian beamed.

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Greco thrives on social contact. He hates being alone, a trait he attributes to his upbringing.

His father, Dick Greco Sr., ran a little hardware store in Ybor City. He was lean like an athlete, with a chiseled jaw and a sweet, lady-killing smile. He was a hard-working immigrant with a choppy Italian accent who gave everything he had to his only child, whom everyone called Dickie.

When Greco was in high school, his father bought him a Model A Ford. When he left home for the University of Florida _ he spent a year there, the only time he lived outside Tampa _ his parents gave him a new Nash and kept the old Ford for themselves. (Greco wound up graduating from the University of Tampa with an education degree.)

"My father never wanted anything for himself," Greco said. "When I was coming up, I didn't know if I was rich or poor because I had everything I wanted without having to ask for it."

His father was interested in politics, and city councilmen _ they were all men back then _ often stopped by the store. But the elder Greco could never run for office, he told his son, because he didn't speak English well. In 1967, when the 34-year-old Greco decided to challenge Mayor Nick Nuccio, who had been in politics longer than Greco had been alive, Greco's father enlisted the network of politicos he had built over the years. Greco won that election and the next one. He loved campaigning.

Greco thinks the constant attention he got as a child is one reason he gravitates to others and hates being alone. Greco packs his days from dawn to dusk with meetings and social engagements, leaving him just a sliver of time to read, watch TV and putter in the garden. Only recently has he been able to sit by himself for more than an hour. Greco could not remember a night when his parents went to sleep before he came home.

In high school, Greco was a champion skeet shooter, and his mother, Evelyn, accompanied him to every tournament. Greco was so good that he could blast two plates with one shell. Thousands of shotgun blasts left him nearly deaf in one ear.

At one match, Greco faced a tall girl named Nell in the finals. Her gun jammed during the first shot. She was about to be disqualified when Greco handed her his shotgun. The spectators were flabbergasted, Greco's mother recalled. Greco won, and his mother relishes that story as evidence of a solid upbringing.

"He is good in every way," said his mom, 92, who lives in South Tampa.

Greco's storybook youth was set in Sulphur Springs, a nourishing, tightly knit place, where boys played stickball in the streets and immigrant families looked out for each other.

"Back then, I bought my clothes from people across the street, got my haircut from a friend, got groceries from another," Greco said. "It was a kinder time, and people were more loyal."

Loyalty means a lot to Greco.

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After the bakery visit, Greco canceled a round of morning meetings at City Hall to attend the funeral of a friend's mother. His wife, Linda, a medical consultant, met him at the service, dressed in a stylish white wool coat trimmed in fox fur.

The burial was held at an Italian cemetery, where Greco saw names from his youth etched in a wall: Ferlita. Palermo. Pizzo. After the mourners slipped back into their cars, Greco wanted to linger in the sun-soaked graveyard. He was looking for his grandfather's crypt when his wife reminded him he had 10 minutes to get across town to WTVT-Ch.13 for an interview.

"We've got to fly," he said, steering his wife toward his car.

On the way to the TV studio, Greco drove through east Tampa. His black Lincoln zoomed past countless vacant lots and crumbling public housing projects.

"Look, honey, we're going to put homes on all these empty lots," he told his wife.

"And then what?" she asked.

"You'd be surprised, people will take care of something if they're given responsibility," he said.

"Why weren't the housing projects built with that intent?"

"Honey, the projects weren't built with any intent," he answered.

Some say it's about time Greco noticed east Tampa's problems. Last month he launched a plan to build 1,000 new homes there, an area where 70 percent of children don't get enough to eat. If there's one issue Greco is criticized for, it is focusing on Ybor City and downtown instead of poor neighborhoods.

Carl Warren, a columnist for the Florida Sentinel-Bulletin, the city's black-oriented newspaper, said he can't see anything the mayor has done for the black community. Warren is rare: He is willing to criticize the mayor publicly.

"Yes, Dick Greco may have done certain things for black individuals, but he has not brought jobs, better security or more power to the black community," said Warren, whose federal lawsuit in the 1980s led to single-member City Council elections. "We are still a city divided, one white, one black, one with power, one powerless."

Warren dismissed the mayor's revitalization plan for east Tampa as a political maneuver, aptly timed to coincide with Greco's announcement this week that he is running for re-election in March. So far, the only potential challenger is a political unknown, Anthony Candela, who is unemployed and has a criminal record. No mayor has run unopposed since at least 1939.

"And what's frustrating is that the man's got the skills and the personality to pull off whatever he wants," Warren said. "Why hasn't he tackled some of our problems?"

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Greco arrived at WTVT right on time. He had been invited to talk about his old UF fraternity buddy, Gov. Lawton Chiles, who had died earlier that week.

His wife, who frequently attends events with him, took a seat backstage. She watched the mayor adoringly.

"The same person you see on the outside is the same person inside," she said. "He's the best thing that has ever happened to me in my life."

At that moment, Greco chatted freely _ he never uses notes _ about Chiles.

"Lawton was a fiercely loyal person . . . and we'll all remember how much he did for the children of the state," Greco said. He added a few more words about what Chiles was like in college _ quiet, serious, kind. Greco appeared relaxed but sharply focused. The show's host, anchor Kathy Fountain, thanked him for the rich memories.

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The last time Greco had appeared on a TV talk show was May 19. Two Tampa detectives had been killed by a career criminal who escaped from handcuffs. Greco arrived at the crime scene to see the detectives slumped across the front seat and watched cop after cop sit down on the curb and cry. The next day, he met with the detectives' wives to plan the funeral.

"By the end of the week, I felt like somebody had taken a screw out of me and drained everything out," Greco said.

The mayor is an unswerving ally of the police. Since he became mayor in 1995, the department has grown from 850 officers to 952. Greco moved police headquarters from a rat-infested hovel in Tampa Heights to a high-rise building downtown. And he changed police policy to allow some officers to take home squad cars and to pursue suspected car thieves. The half-cent sales tax, a controversial measure that Greco campaigned for in 1996, helped pay for some of these enhancements, as well as a new Bucs stadium.

But what boosts police morale even higher is that the mayor regularly shows up to crime scenes. Sometimes these are the hardest moments of his job.

He relies on his optimistic nature to see him through _ even when two cops are gunned down. "I find ways to see goodness," he said, "like how this entire city turned out to show their support for police after that happened."

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After the TV show, it's time to get lunch. Greco and his wife settle on Malio's Steak House, an old-fashioned, smoke-filled, dimly lit place with padded walls.

Greco ordered meatloaf. His wife had fish. He passed on the bread. He's on a high-protein, low carbohydrate diet that has helped him shed 12 pounds in a month, down to 194 pounds (before Christmas). At 5 feet 10, he's still got a little paunch, but his neck looks skinnier.

After the meal, the mayor grabbed as many hands as he could and waded through the lunchtime crowd. "How y'all doing?" he said to anyone whose glance he caught.

The mayor enjoys familiarity and seeks it out. "It's strange for me to go somewhere and not see someone I know," he said.

Finally, at 3 p.m., he glided into the parking spot marked "MAYOR" and breezed into City Hall. A small group was seated in Greco's office to talk about an $87-million upgrade to the city's garbage plant on McKay Bay. The city needs to fix the plant to meet federal air standards.

"Is this project going to give me more capacity?" Greco asked.

No, an engineer explained, because of environmental permitting issues. The talk then shifted to the temperatures at which garbage is burned. The mayor nodded, but he was thinking about other things.

"You know what?" Greco said, seemingly reaching back to his development days, "that's a nice piece of property that plant sits on with a view over the bay."

They moved to the next order of business: Angry garbage haulers. Some veteran garbage haulers felt slighted that foremen were being hired from private companies. Greco told his assistant, Curtis Lane, to meet with sanitation supervisors.

"If this is happening, we need to know why," Greco said. "And let's make sure there's no reprisals against these guys for complaining. There may be problems over there, but I'll bet we can help things by just talking this out."

Lane, shuffling through a sheaf of paperwork, bounced a few more issues off Greco. The mayor, who isn't known for taking a lot of notes, leaned back in his chair. He listened to an update on a housing grant, details about an upcoming NHL All-star Game and some information about minority salaries.

After about an hour, it was time to zip home to New Tampa, a half-hour drive. That evening Greco had been invited to speak at a downtown memorial service for Gov. Chiles, but first he needed to check on the status of the house he is building.

Tampa Palms, one of the plushest new developments in the city, is Greco's new neighborhood. As a boy, he stalked quail with his bird dog, Mac, in the woods behind his new home. When Greco was about 20, a rattlesnake bit Mac, and the dog died in his arms.

Greco wasn't immediately sold on the virtues of New Tampa. It seemed far away. Despite a highly publicized break-in at his South Tampa town house last year, in which a would-be carjacker crashed through the home, spilling blood all over the rugs, Greco wanted to stay within Tampa's traditional powerbase. But after he was outbid for a lot in Palma Ceia, he settled on a piece of the Reserve, a gated community in Tampa Palms.

His new home has all the charms of made-to-order luxury _ Romanesque columns, a whirlpool and closets the size of bedrooms. But the contractor isn't finished yet, and there are still no rugs, interior doors or furniture. Until the place is ready, the mayor and his wife are staying in a hotel room on the top floor of the Tampa Palms country club.

Greco is used to luxury. He's worth $1.1-million. He made his money between his stints as mayor. In 1974, he resigned to work for Edward DeBartolo, one of the nation's premier shopping mall developers.

Greco has used his fluency in real estate development to bring to Tampa new hotels, millions of dollars of investment for Ybor City and other big construction projects.

"The national economy has helped us, no doubt," Greco acknowledged. "My job is to do as much as we can while this lasts."

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By the time he turned off Interstate 275 and cruised back into downtown, the sun was sinking behind office buildings, turning glass towers orange. Greco and his wife slipped into First Presbyterian Church on Zack Street. A woman from City Hall grabbed him at the door.

"What am I supposed to say?" Greco whispered.

"Anything on the governor," she murmured.

Greco stepped to the podium and talked about his old fraternity buddy again. His speech _ no notes, again _ stuck to the same themes he aired on TV. Then he led a prayer and belted out a hymn, eyes closed, the hundreds of transfixed mourners invisible in the pews below him.

"He could have been a preacher," Linda Greco whispered.

After the service, a woman in a wheelchair rolled up to him. She wore a winter coat with a gap-toothed front zipper and held a knit pillow in her arms.

"Oh, mayor, I've been trying to get a hold of you," she said, as he tossed an arm around her shoulders. "I wanted to make you a pillow. And to see if you could help me."

The woman's name is Jackie Riles, but most people know her as the Pillow Lady. She goes to all the Bucs games and knits pillows for players. She also stitched pillows for the wives of the two murdered detectives. She asked the mayor if he could get a concrete car stop from the old stadium's parking lot and put it in her back yard.

"I would love to," the mayor said. "I'll get back to you when I can."

The Pillow Lady glowed for a moment before she wheeled away.

The mayor walked out of the heavy church doors. The street was empty and there was nobody else to charm.

His day was over.

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