Muslim community tests its political muscle in Tampa elections

Local leaders say they are following the strategy of Cuban-Americans.
Laila Abdelaziz, who moved to the area in 2009 to go to the University of South Florida because of the Muslim community, and then worked as a community organizer, says local Muslims can make a difference in a close election.
Laila Abdelaziz, who moved to the area in 2009 to go to the University of South Florida because of the Muslim community, and then worked as a community organizer, says local Muslims can make a difference in a close election.
Published Feb. 19, 2019

Several thousand people showed up at Waterworks Park on Sunday for the Arab American Community Center festival, along with two mayoral candidates and more than a dozen City Council candidates — a sign of the political influence of Tampa's growing Muslim and Arab-American community.

It's concentrated in the Temple Terrace-New Tampa area, drawn by the University of South Florida, and community leaders want to make it into a political force.

"It's following the strategy of the Cuban-Americans, recognizing our electorate is very split and a one-percent swing can change the outcome of an election," said Laila Abdelaziz, who came to USF in 2009 because of the Muslim community and then worked as a community organizer.

Abdelaziz noted Bob Buckhorn's narrow 2011 win for mayor followed an endorsement and field work from the Muslim community.

No one knows big the community is, but Tarah Saadaldin of Muslims for Democracy and Fairness, a local PAC, said there are estimates of 5,000 to 6,000 Muslims just in the Temple Terrace area, based on attendance at mosques and Islamic schools.

Prominent Arab-American Lawyer Sam Badawi said on a per-capita basis, it could rival Dearborn, Mich., one of the nation's biggest Arab-Amerian concentrations.

Abdelaziz said the community is politically diverse, with conservatives including well-to-do business owners and physicians, and liberals uneasy with the anti-Islamic rhetoric of Republicans including President Donald Trump.

But post-9/11 "Islamophobia" is the biggest unifying issue, said Saadaldin, citing incidents including hate mail sent out against a 2016 Temple Terrace City Council candidate and a 2017 arson at a Thonotosassa mosque.

The PAC has endorsed David Straz for mayor and a list of council candidates including incumbents Guido Maniscalco and Luis Viera, whose New Tampa district includes much of the community and who spoke against anti-Islamic sentiment at the festival.

Council candidate Joe Citro said he has pledged to form an Islamic citizens advisory committee if elected.

Only three mayoral candidates — Straz, Topher Morrison and Ed Turanchik — came to MDF's endorsement interviews, Saadaldin said, but former police chief Jane Castor spoke at the festival along with Morrison.

In an interview, Morrison questioned why the group endorsed Straz despite his former support for Trump. But Straz has publicly renounced that previous support, saying he's disillusioned with Trump, and Saadaldin said he apologized for it in the interview.

Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, a Democrat who unseated Republican Mark Ober in 2016, has announced a 2020 re-election fundraising committee that includes several prominent Republicans.

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The Democrats include attorney and committee chairman David Singer, Justin Day, Ed Narain, Sean Shaw, Erin Aeble, Tom Hall, Alex Sink and others. Mixed in are Republicans including Martin Garcia, Stuart Lasher, Andy Scaglione and David Bekhor, along with Nikki DeBartolo, wife of GOP Sheriff Chad Chronister.

Tampa's abuzz about "Hamilton," and it's hard not to notice it's playing at a theater named for a certain mayoral candidate.

That's caused some to wonder: Will "Hamilton" at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts help David A. Straz Jr.'s campaign?

"People vote with their emotions, not their heads," said lobbyist and political insider Todd Pressman. "You have hundreds of people from Tampa going there and having fun, with the name Straz all over it."

Other candidates aren't worried.

"That sounds like a big stretch," said a Jane Castor campaign statement. "The real winners are the people who managed to get tickets."

Harry Cohen, a Straz Center board member who said he loves the center, admitted, "There might be some truth" to the idea that it could help Straz.

"But if they have a lot of trouble with parking, maybe it could hurt,'' he added jokingly.