TAMPA — Just 217 votes separated funeral director Jeffrey Rhodes from retired policeman Orlando Gudes in last month's City Council District 5 election.
The outcome of the April 23 runoff between the two could be equally close as they vie to win over the 42 percent of voters who backed other candidates in the race for Tampa's only majority minority seat.
Rhodes will draw confidence that he bested Gudes in the first election despite having been out-raised by almost three to one in campaign donations. Gudes raised almost $68,000 compared to Rhodes' $25,000. Both have spent almost all their donations.
Gudes, however, may feel the geography of the district, which includes large swaths of East Tampa, will suit him. The East Tampa resident won a majority of those precincts in the first election and will be hoping to pick up more votes from supporters of the candidates who were eliminated on March 27. The district also includes part of West Tampa, Channelside and downtown Tampa.
In a campaign that has been notable for an absence of attacks and negative campaigning, it is the style of the two candidates that provides the greatest contrast.
At debates and on his political flyers, Rhodes is always immaculately dressed in a business suit. In his calm measured tone, he promises improvements in public transportation, preservation of neighborhoods and economic growth. A small business owner, he has served on the West Tampa Community Redevelopment Area board and is a member of the West Tampa Chamber of Commerce.
Gudes comes across as a grittier and more passionate campaigner. His message is that his service on the city's Charter Review Board has given him vital policy experience. And he touts his volunteer work running youth football and cheerleading leagues and service as a Tampa Police Officer as giving him the know-how to solve people's problems.
That contrast is also reflected in their endorsements. Rhodes has the backing of a host of local church pastors, the Greater Tampa Realtors Association and Tampa Bay Builder's Association and the Florida Sentinel Bulletin, a newspaper that focuses on Tampa's African American community. After their loss in the March 27 election, District 5 candidates Ella Coffee and Ralph Smith also threw their support behind Rhodes.
Gudes' support includes the local police and firefighters' unions, Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller, former Tampa City Council member Gwen Miller, and state Reps. Susan Valdes and Dianne Hart. He is most proud of having won the backing of Council member Frank Reddick, who is leaving the District 5 seat to run for the Hillsborough County Commission seat being vacated by Les Miller.
Both candidates say they will work to boost the economy in the district and across Tampa.
Rhodes favors the use of tax incentives and grants to spur the growth of small businesses. He would like Tampa to pass a hiring ordinance similar to one adopted by St. Petersburg that requires companies awarded city contracts to hire ex felons and create apprentice positions. Cleaning up communities and making them more walkable will help make them more attractive to small businesses, he said.
"There are still some blighted areas in East Tampa as well as Sulphur Springs, and also (we need to) maintain community parks and provide after-school care to our children," Rhodes said.
Gudes also wants a city ordinance that helps former felons get employment. He also wants more investment in District 5 and more employment opportunities to be opened up at Port Tampa Bay, which lies within the district. He favors the development of more mixed income communities like Encore, the Tampa Housing Authority development that replaced Central Park Homes.
"We all know there's no equal balance when it comes to certain districts; there never has been," Gudes said. "District 5 has lacked the resources."
Both candidates said they oppose the widening of I-275 through downtown Tampa, a plan that the Florida Department of Transportation has been forced to reboot because of heated opposition from neighborhoods including Seminole Heights. Gudes would like to see the streetcar system expanded into East Tampa, an option that has not been discussed by current city leaders.
Rhodes said that alternative options to widening should be considered such as elevated sections. He also supports the expansion of the trolley car and the introduction of light rail using existing CSX lines.
Rhodes, 56, is making his first bid for elected office. He is divorced with two children, both now grown up. His business experience comes from being co-owner of the Ray Williams Funeral Home, where he worked for 40 years as an embalmer, funeral director and, later, co-owner. He is also licensed as an insurance and annuity agent.
The West Tampa resident lists building more affordable housing, reducing crime and addressing the city's aging stormwater infrastructure as among his top issues. He said he has a track record of being able to get things done that will make him an effective member of the council, where the ability to build consensus is critical.
"To get anything done on council, you need four votes," Rhodes said. "Being in business and active in civic life, I can work with just about anybody."
Gudes, 51 failed in his first bid for office, losing to Luis Viera in the citywide District 7 seat in 2016. He is also divorced with two children. He served an an officer with the Tampa Police Department for 16 years before retiring in 2016.
His other priorities if elected are to improve job prospects for lower-income residents and provide more support for seniors and youth.
"I'm passionate about our issues and our city," he said. "I'm experienced. I've dealt with people in real-life situations on a daily basis."
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at email@example.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.