Three of Tampa's five mayoral hopefuls made their pitch to New Tampa last week, touting visions for a city they say is on the cusp of greatness.
City Council members Bob Buckhorn and Charlie Miranda and business consultant Frank Sanchez took part in an informal debate hosted by the nonpartisan political activist group New Tampa Votes. County Commissioner Chris Hart, who has since dropped out of the race, and fitness author Donald Ardell were invited but did not attend.
Buckhorn, who has raised $222,000 so far, has been a Tampa resident for 20 years and a City Council member since 1995. Miranda, who has raised $109,000, is the chairman of the council and the acting mayor when Dick Greco is out of town. Sanchez, a native of Riverside Heights who was an assistant secretary of transportation in the Clinton administration, has accumulated a $377,000 war chest in five months.
The mayoral election isn't until next year, but already candidates have pressed the flesh for what some political observers believe will be a photo finish in March.
"We're in the bullpen warming up, getting ready to go in the ballgame," Miranda said.
On Wednesday night, the three men frequently found themselves in agreement.
All opposed a moratorium on development in New Tampa, despite the area's critical water shortages. Instead, they talked about the importance of "smart growth."
Hosting the 2004 Republican Convention, they said, would be a terrific opportunity to showcase Tampa's gifts. But each said he had concerns about an event that would cost local governments almost $12-million _ $5-million in cash _ as recently reported.
Each man made a commitment to providing the police department with adequate resources, but no one mentioned a specific increase in the number of officers.
"We have enough officers to cover this community," Buckhorn said.
Light rail, like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, has remained out of reach for decades. It appears that under a Buckhorn, Sanchez or Miranda administration, the deficit-running mass transit system would remain that way, at least for the near future. All three said the city should work to acquire right-of-way to make room for a future light rail train, but that voters should make a final decision about construction later.
Funding for the east-west road, which would link New Tampa and Interstate 275, will not dry up, they pledged, even though some West Meadows residents say the corridor will drive more traffic through their neighborhood.
"That road has to be built," Miranda said.
While transportation impact fees currently cover about 15 percent of the cost of new roads, no candidate supported raising them.
And each emphasized the importance of giving less fortunate citizens of Tampa the opportunity to earn a decent living, with Sanchez echoing the famous John F. Kennedy line, "Give a hand, not a handout."
The candidates differed most in their stump speeches and their ideas for how to turn a city where fewer than 44,000 people voted in the last mayoral election _ about 33 percent voter turnout _ into a world-class center for commerce and culture.
Sanchez, who holds a master's degree from Harvard University, stressed his business background, saying that it was important to govern not with "rules and regulations" but with "goals and objectives."
Having bought a house next to his parents' home in Riverside Heights, Sanchez said he looked forward to bringing his academic and professional experiences from Boston and Washington, D.C., home to Tampa.
"I haven't spent time in City Hall, but I have spent time preparing to lead this city," he said.
Buckhorn emphasized his long service to Tampa and his attention to details such as code enforcement. He said the city cannot afford an adjustment period with the next mayor, referring to Sanchez, who has raised $155,000 more than Buckhorn in less than half the time.
"This is not a place where you learn on the job," Buckhorn said. "If you're going to be the mayor, you've got to know this city, where the potholes are, where the streets break, the difference between Tampa Palms and Hunter's Green."
Miranda continued his low-key, call-them-as-I-see-them approach, saying he had a little bit of Mayor Greco, some of former Mayor Bill Poe, and a "lot of George Steinbrenner," in him.
"I don't give any, I don't take any," he said. "I'm not a high-falutin type guy. I don't go out and raise four, five, six, 800, a million dollars to run for office."
Their responses to a question about creating jobs brought out pronounced differences in vision.
Miranda said he wanted to see a diverse local economy that could create jobs of all kinds from within.
"I want to see the people who grew up here, who got educated here, stay here," he said.
Buckhorn said that technology would be the key to transforming Tampa into the dominant economy in the southeastern United States. By building on the applied research knowledge at the University of South Florida, the city should recruit high-paying jobs in the biomedical and information technology sectors.
"When you start to create a seamless environment between politicians, the business community and the academics, you can create an economy that allows this place to bust through," Buckhorn said.
Sanchez said technology was "a piece" of Tampa's future. But the city needed to better cultivate new small business owners and entrepreneurs. He also mentioned strengthening the city's seaport as a way to open up trade with Latin America.
"We already have a light manufacturing base that isn't using the port here," he said. "They are shipping out of South Florida."
_ John Balz can be reached at (813) 269-5313 or at balzsptimes.com.