TAMPA — For candidate John Dingfelder, his simple campaign catch phrase has become a self-fulfilling prophecy:
“Experience Counts!” was the message the 62-year-old political stalwart and former City Council member hammered home through mailers and yard signs, in town halls and campaign ads, in the race for the city-wide District 3 seat.
Experience, and strong fundraising, has carried Dingfelder back to Tampa City Council. He took 64 percent of the vote in his race against 37-year-old political newcomer Stephen Lytle, with all precincts reporting, plus early voting and mail ballots.
Dingfelder and his supporters celebrated at south Tampa’s Elevage Epicurean, many stopping to take a selfie with the new council member.
“I’m so excited, this might be our best win yet,” Dingfelder said. “Coming back after being out for eight years, it’s just such an honor to win and win in a big way.”
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Both Dingfelder and Lytle campaigned for the citywide District 3 seat on similar progressive agendas — each supporting better infrastructure, mass transit and neighborhood advocacy at City Hall.
But Dingfelder's resume displayed the advantages held over Lytle. He had already represented South Tampa’s District 4 from 2003-10, then vacated his seat to run for Hillsborough County Commission. That effort was one of at least seven major election campaigns for Dingfelder and his wife-turned-campaign manager Lynn Marvin since his first election to City Council in 2003.
“In many ways it felt just like it did back when I was on council,” he said. “People remembered, and that was the basis for our win. People remembered the hard work we put in.”
In both 2003 and 2007, Dingfelder cinched enough votes to win a three-way race without a runoff election. On his website, he touts that he only raised $40,171 for that first victory.
His comeback has proven to be far more expensive, however. Records show Dingfelder brought in more than $200,000 in monetary and in-kind contributions — about $50,000 of which came from his own pocket. Lytle’s total contributions were just under $69,500.
A full-time lawyer, Dingfelder has also worked as a middle school science teacher, dabbled in real estate, and represented the ACLU for a stint spanning the 2012 Republican National Convention held in downtown Tampa. In the years since his turn on City Council came to an end in 2010, Dingfelder has continued to work as an attorney and serve on numerous civic boards, including the Tampa General Hospital board and the Humane Society Board.
Lytle is a human resources manager with Walmart’s health care division. He has served with philanthropic and civic groups, including Tampa’s Citizen Budget Advisory Committee, and he’s been endorsed by Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman.
In the March municipal election, Dingfelder was only 438 votes shy of winning the District 3 seat outright over three first-time candidates in their 30s. Yet even after winning 49 percent of total votes in the four-way race, Dingfelder spared no efforts to pull even farther ahead of Lytle in the six-week run up to Tuesday’s election.
“My 89-year-old mom has campaigned every day over the past year,” Dingfelder told the Tampa Bay Times earlier Tuesday. “She lives in her Dingfelder shirts and T-shirts.”
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Dingfelder’s most recent mailers included no fewer than 42 endorsements from local politicians, community leaders and business owners, including outgoing Mayor Bob Buckhorn, state representatives Shawn Harrison and Susan Valdes, and county commissioners Mariella Smith and Pat Kemp. Dingfelder has also gotten backing from the region’s three newspapers and multiple unions. And of all the candidates who entered the runoff election, Dingfelder is the only one with campaign contributions exceeding six figures.
Lytle, who also serves as president of the South Seminole Heights Civic Association, barely won 20 percent of votes during the March election. But in the days that followed he found a groundswell of support among voters 30 or younger, polling data shows.
Dingfelder will be sworn in to City Council on May 1 alongside two new faces.
“When I left the council we were still in the recession and times were tough, so I really looked forward to being on council at a time when things are going great for the city,” Dingfelder said. “This time’s a little different, I’m not the rookie I was in 2003, so I’m eager to help create a more progressive, forward-thinking and proactive council.”