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Florida’s first and only Hispanic governor

Bob Martinez, in a two parts conversation, shares his memories as mayor, business owner and governor.
Former Governor Bob Martinez poses for a portrait at the office building where he works in Tampa on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021.
Former Governor Bob Martinez poses for a portrait at the office building where he works in Tampa on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Feb. 27
Updated Feb. 27

Times Correspondent

West Tampa native Bob Martinez served as Tampa mayor from 1979 to 1986 and as Florida governor from 1987 to 1991.

Before that, Martinez, who has a master’s degree in industrial and labor relations from the University of Illinois, taught school, represented companies in labor relations, headed the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association and owned a popular Spanish restaurant. Currently, he is a senior policy advisor at Holland & Knight law firm. He has been married to his high school sweetheart, Mary Jane Martinez, for 66 years.

Martinez, 86, talked with the Tampa Bay Times about his career and youth in Tampa. The conversation is in two parts. Next week, he discusses his switch from Democrat to Republican, being Florida’s only Hispanic governor and his environmental accomplishments.

What are your memories of growing up in West Tampa?

I grew up on Ivy street and Tampania, between Tampania and Armenia Avenue. It was rural at that time. We had cows and chickens and a huge garden – during the Second World War particularly, a large victory garden. ... So I was barely inside of city limits in those days. On a dirt street. Streetcar line ran right in front of our house. … Most of the people in the area were Spaniards. My grandparents were Spaniards. …

And I went to Tampa Bay Boulevard, which is still there. The school was in the county at that time; Tampa Bay Boulevard was the city limits. Only about 90 kids, so very small. Most of the years I was there at the elementary school, Drew Field was operating as a military base. So we were quite aware of what was going on because the base was near us and we’d see soldiers marching in the neighborhood. …

I had a great, great upbringing. I mean, you could move around freely, there were trees to climb, a river to fish in. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to live growing up.

You bought Cafe Sevilla on Armenia Avenue in 1975 from your uncle, who was retiring, and ran it yourself until you became mayor. What was that experience like?

Well, it was one of the most fascinating things I think I’ve ever done, frankly, and it’s the hardest thing I ever did in terms of hours and commitment. And I obviously had a steep learning curve. … Basically I would unlock the door at 6 in the morning for the first shift to come in, and then you would do purchasing, fresh vegetables or fish. Whatever needed to be bought I would buy early in the morning so they would deliver it time for the lunch. …

I greeted everyone at lunchtime. I was there until probably 2 in the afternoon everyday and go home for a few hours and come back at 6 (p.m.), then lock the door at 11 o’clock. And then (we) waited for the last customer to leave. The crew had to clean up the kitchen for the next day, so maybe it was 1 or 1:30 before I left to do it again the next day – or the same day, at 6.

Did greeting the lunch crowd help you politically?

Oh, there’s no doubt about it. My uncle had developed and then I expanded on it, the bulk of our customers were from South Tampa or from the business community, including the publishers of the Tampa Tribune and Tampa Times in those days. So I got to know an awful lot of people and went for it.

I got to meet a lot of people that had financial resources. You know how it is, restaurants get in the papers; if you have a good restaurant you’d get some free publicity here and there. And I was active in the chamber of commerce. ... Then at the same time I bought the restaurant, about a month later, (Gov.) Reubin Askew appoints me to the Southwest Florida Water Management District board (nicknamed Swiftmud from the acronym).

Tallahassee, Fla.: Governor Bob Martinez announces his $17.9 billion budget that includes a 7% pay raise for Florida's teachers. Martinez explained the spending package and answered questions during a 2/12 news conference in 1987
Tallahassee, Fla.: Governor Bob Martinez announces his $17.9 billion budget that includes a 7% pay raise for Florida's teachers. Martinez explained the spending package and answered questions during a 2/12 news conference in 1987

You say Gov. Askew, whom you’d helped in his campaign, called the restaurant?

The phone rings and my cashier says, “There’s someone on the phone says he’s the governor of Florida.’' So I walked over to the phone, and it was Gov. Askew. And he asked, “How are you doing in your new venture?” I said … “It’s been great but it’s been a real high learning curve for me.’'

He said, “Well, I want you to have another learning curve.’'... I said. “Reubin, I can’t do that. I’m swamped here just trying to figure out all the things I need to do here.’' …

“Oh, you’ve got to do this. I don’t want to appoint anyone that wants it because they’ll have an ax to grind. They either want to restrict water or they want more water. … I want someone who has no affiliation with Swiftmud.’' … After about 25 or 30 minutes I finally gave in.

What were the highlights of your terms as mayor?

When I got sworn in, the millage rate was 9.75 mills. When I left it was 4.65, I think. So I think for the tax-payers, property owners, they got results in terms of having their taxes contained.

On the visible things that occurred, there was the Straz Center, the Convention Center, the new Lowry Park Zoo, the refuse-to-energy plant. I also annexed everything to Pasco County from (University of South Florida), brought in all of New Tampa at that time. …

Those are the large visible things, but there were a lot of things of how you make something work better. Those things are boring, quite frankly. Most people don’t want to hear about them, to be honest with you. But they’re important because it leads you to do things more efficiently. Like the parks and solid waste (crews) … when they left their yards to do the work, whether waste collection or maintaining parks and playgrounds and right-of-ways, no one had ever given them a schedule of how it should be done. … We hired firms that developed routes for them. Sanitation trucks would always be turning right to reduce accidents and be more efficient. Park and Rec people should never leave their yards without knowing what kind of plants they’re going to plant and where it is they’re going to mow.

Those were the things I never spoke to the public about because who wants to hear that? But yet they were so important because doing that more efficiently, it released you money to do something else.