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RAYS HOPE HEAVY HITTER HELPS DELIVER STADIUM

The Tampa Bay Rays, needing a critical "yes'' vote from Pinellas County commissioners this summer, have hired a college pitcher-turned-lawyer whose political connections reach far into the courthouse.

Clearwater land use attorney Ed Armstrong joined the Rays' lineup in May - not because the team needed legal work, but because it needed access.

Armstrong, 51, has contributed both cash and savvy advice to help elect most of the seven-member commission. He counsels commissioners on everything from policy to media relations, and he represents developers before them.

"There is nobody that has more influence than Ed Armstrong when it comes to changing public policy," St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse said.

Some commissioners say there may be a limit to what Armstrong can do for the Rays.

"I really feel like we have been backed into a corner, and I don't like that," said Commissioner Karen Seel, who knows Armstrong from their days at Clearwater's Oak Grove Junior High. "And even if they've hired Ed Armstrong, that's not going to change."

County Commissioner Ken Welch was one of several people who suggested the Rays consider hiring Armstrong, the team said.

Welch said he watched with dismay as team executives unveiled a financing plan for a new waterfront ballpark to the St. Petersburg City Council. The Rays were clumsy, Welch thought, in trying to pull the levers of power.

Afterward, Welch called the team. Get serious and talk to the right players, he said, or you're done. And another thing: you could use an Ed Armstrong.

The next day, May 16, the Rays called Armstrong.

"We want two things" from Armstrong, Rays senior vice president Michael Kalt said. "Somebody to communicate and advocate for us and somebody who can get us into a room with people so that we can make our case."

That's Armstrong's game. But he, commissioners and some political pros say his reputation as a puppet-master is absurd. No elected official, they say, will put principle aside just because Armstrong now is on the Rays' payroll.

"You have to look at the issue and make your vote on that issue and based on the facts of the case," Welch said.

Armstrong's friendships and donations "mean access," said political consultant Mary Repper. "They mean the ability to pick up the phone and talk to these commissioners like nobody else can."

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