In many Tampa Bay area candidate forums during the 2020 campaigns, something was missing — Republican candidates.
That’s partly because of the work of a prominent local GOP political operative, Anthony Pedicini of Tampa.
In a recent interview, Pedicini acknowledged that he advises candidates he works for to avoid appearing at public forums where they might have to give spontaneous answers to questions from the public, possibly making missteps that could be used against them later.
When the state’s Republican legislative leadership is spending millions to get a candidate elected, he said, they can’t afford to have the candidate “flub it up” by answering a question from the public.
Among local candidates Pedicini worked for during the 2020 race were re-elected state Rep. Jackie Toledo of Tampa, newly elected state Rep. Linda Chaney of St. Petersburg and unsuccessful county commission candidates Larry Ahern of St. Petersburg and Sandy Murman of Tampa.
All skipped at least one public forum, according to organizers from the Tampa and Suncoast Tiger Bay clubs and the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce.
Forums held by those groups and other civic organizations have long been a mainstay of campaigns for local and legislative offices, which draw little public attention and news coverage.
This year, most such events were held virtually because of the pandemic, but organizers still reported having trouble getting Republican candidates, particularly Pedicini’s clients, to participate.
Pedicini is known for his slashing negative campaigns, often using anonymous or shell political committees to produce factually distorted attack mailers and advertising, and relishes his role as a political bad boy.
He was even sued for defamation by a fellow Republican, Mike Beltran, after a nasty 2018 state House primary campaign in which Pedicini worked for Beltran’s Republican opponent.
A Pedicini-linked committee sent out mailers saying Beltran, a lawyer, “helps illegal aliens get back out on the streets,” and “brags on his webpage about how he gets these criminal illegal aliens and drug traffickers off easy.”
Beltran said that referred to a single case in which he arranged for a client to get a shorter sentence — 20 years instead of life — by agreeing to be deported when he got out of prison. After Beltran won the election, the lawsuit was settled.
Pedicini didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.
Former Tampa Bay Times journalist Adam Smith interviewed Pedicini recently for a podcast called Political Party, and asked whether he advises his client candidates to skip public forums.
Pedicini said he does.
“We kind of made a decision … (that) if we’re going to stub our own toe, we’re not going to do it in front of 500 people,” Pedicini said.
Asked whether that was healthy for democracy, he said, “I’m sorry,” but, “is it worth it if you’re the speaker of the House and Senate president pouring millions of dollars (into a race) to have a candidate go and flub it up because they answered a question at Tiger Bay wrong?”
Incoming House speakers and Senate presidents are in charge of the campaigns to get members of their party elected to legislative seats, using huge contributions from corporations, special interests and lobbyists to fund their candidates’ campaigns.
In the interview, Pedicini described working closely with incoming House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, on 2020 House races, including the Chaney-Webb race.
Pedicini’s firm worked on 24 different state House campaigns in all, including the Sprowls campaign. Sprowls had no comment on the question of his campaign tactics.
In the interview, Pedicini noted that attack ads he used against Toledo’s opponent, Julie Jenkins, and Rep. Jennifer Webb, unseated by Chaney, used comments they made in public forums.
A television ad attacking Jenkins said she “took money out of your pocket to run her campaign,” referring to a pandemic relief loan received by the state Democratic Party. The party returned the loan after sharp criticism from both Democrats and Republicans, but Republicans still accused Democratic candidates of benefiting from it.
Asked by a Republican during a Tiger Bay forum whether she would return the Paycheck Protection Program money — which she never received — Jenkins replied that she didn’t have any to return. But the ad showed her saying only, “No I’m not going to return that money,” repeating the brief clip over and over.
Ahern and Chaney skipped forums held by the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce.
Neither Ahern, Chaney, Murman nor Toledo responded to questions about what advice they were given by Pedicini.
“I understand the strategy,” said chamber President Chris Steinocher. “Does it serve the voters best? Probably not. But I understand why you would try to win a race that way.”
Tiger Bay Clubs to unite
Sixteen Tiger Bay Clubs throughout Florida will form a unified organization to hold statewide candidate forums and issue discussions, Tampa Tiger Bay President Yvonne Fry said this week.
The clubs held virtual forums during the 2020 political campaign on subjects including constitutional amendment ballot amendments, and hope to have statewide forums for candidates as well, she said.
The clubs involved include the Suncoast club based in Pinellas and possibly the state’s most influential club in Tallahassee. It’s expected forums held by the group will be available to each of the clubs for live streaming on their websites and Facebook pages.
Contact William March at firstname.lastname@example.org