Is David Straz trying to buy an election? No, just spreading his name, campaign says

With contributions from the pockets of one candidate, David Straz Jr., the 2019 Tampa mayor's race is awash in cash. Latest campaign filings show Straz has spent more than three times the money spent by the other seven candidates combined. [Facebook]
With contributions from the pockets of one candidate, David Straz Jr., the 2019 Tampa mayor's race is awash in cash. Latest campaign filings show Straz has spent more than three times the money spent by the other seven candidates combined. [Facebook]
Published August 23 2018
Updated August 23 2018

TAMPA — The mayoral election in the bay area's largest city is more than six months away, but it's already awash in cash.

Nearly all the money is flowing from philanthropist David Straz Jr. into his own campaign coffers.

The latest campaign filings show Straz spending $484,013 through the end of July — more than three times the money spent by the other seven candidates combined, including the campaigns of well-connected and deep-pocketed contenders like Jane Castor, Harry Cohen and Ed Turanchik.

So much spending so early, including more than $370,000 on two television ads, is part of a plan to make the 75-year-old retired banker and philanthropist a familiar face to voters, officials with his campaign said.

"David is known as a philanthropist and business leader and we're trying to introduce him to the people of Tampa as a candidate," campaign manager Mark Hanisee said. "When we've been out in the community, people have been coming up to him and saying, 'Hey, we really like your commercial.' So it's working."

Letters spelling out David Straz Jr. rise in giant type all around Tampa's downtown performing arts center, but his campaign says it needs to spend money to boost Straz's name recognition among voters as a candidate for mayor. [DENNIS JOYCE | Times]
Letters spelling out David Straz Jr. rise in giant type all around Tampa’s downtown performing arts center, but his campaign says it needs to spend money to boost Straz’s name recognition among voters as a candidate for mayor. [DENNIS JOYCE | Times]
Other candidates have been in public life for years. Cohen and Mike Suarez are City Council members. Castor was a longtime Tampa police chief. Turanchik served as a county commissioner.

Straz is still building his political brand, Hanisee said.

"People know him from his philanthropic work," Hanisee said. Straz's name tops the city's performing arts center downtown and a building at the University of Tampa.

Sandy Freedman, the city's mayor from 1986 to 1995, said she is concerned that Straz's spending indicates he might "try to buy an election."

"It's obviously unprecedented," said Freedman, who supports Cohen.
Others say mayoral elections in Tampa are won with a strong ground game, not an aerial bombardment on TV. Canvassing and personal connections trump piles of cash, they say.

The Castor, Turanchik and Cohen campaigns declined to speak on the record about Straz's spending, but Suarez said he's skeptical that money will prove the determining factor on March 5 when voters head to the polls. It didn't with the past two mayors, he noted.

"It would be almost be impossible to buy it," Suarez said. "If that were true, Bob Buckhorn wouldn't be mayor. Pam Iorio wouldn't have been mayor."
Freedman isn't so sure.

"I guess we'll find out," she said. "There's something about the money that makes a difference, obviously."

The success of Rick Scott, whose fortune helped propel the Republican political outsider to the governor's office, is a cautionary tale, said Freedman, a Democrat.

Straz has said he's prepared to spend whatever it takes to become Tampa's next mayor, but Hanisee said that willingness to be competitive in a crowded field shouldn't be portrayed as an attempt to spend his way into office.

"I think that's jealousy and sour grapes," Hanisee said.

So far, Straz's campaign is almost completely self-funded. He's contributed more than $1.5 million to his own coffers.

Straz, a Wisconsin native who made his fortune starting and selling chains of banks, is the New York Yankees of Tampa politics, Suarez said.

If you're Straz, Suarez said, you say to yourself, "I've got enough money to paper over my mistakes."

Topher Morrison, a branding consultant making his first run for office, has spent less than a tenth of what Straz has spent so far.

Morrison said he's trying to be creative and, hoping to go viral, he's advertising on everything from t-shirts to policy videos on social media to keep from being overshadowed by better funded candidates like Straz.

But he says Straz's strategy makes sense.

"If I had the war chest he does, I'd be spending some time on the airwaves, too. So God bless you," Morrison said. "I don't mind giving credit where credit is due. They're very well done."

Straz is spending money beyond TV. The campaign also has a strong presence on Twitter and Facebook and plans to spread its cash between traditional and social media buys, Hanisee said.

Another first-time candidate, 27-year-old LaVaughn King, notes that Straz has said he voted for President Donald Trump, although he has said he regrets that vote and does not support the president.

To King, that makes Straz's early money splurge a necessary move in an overwhelmingly Democratic city.

"He has to spend that much money," King said, "to reach people who may not be receptive to him."

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