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  1. Florida Politics

David Straz smashed spending records to make Tampa's mayoral runoff. Did he get his money's worth?

David Straz and Jarrod Holbrooke, left, check an iPad as election results trickle in Tuesday night  during the David Straz for Mayor watch party at the Lowry Park Zoo.  (TAILYR IRVINE   |   Times)
David Straz and Jarrod Holbrooke, left, check an iPad as election results trickle in Tuesday night during the David Straz for Mayor watch party at the Lowry Park Zoo. (TAILYR IRVINE | Times)
Published Mar. 8, 2019

TAMPA — When it comes to wooing voters, no one can accuse multi-millionaire David Straz of scrimping.

Carne Chop House catered his campaign launch to the tune of $17,000. Supporters at another event were treated to $1,000 worth of fish and banana pudding from a Seffner soul food eatery.

His campaign swag included $1,000 worth of parade beads and more than $500 spent on cigars, including some wrapped in "Straz for Mayor" tubes.

And several members of his campaign team received a personal Christmas gift from Tiffany and Co., bought by Straz out of his own pocket.

The retired banker with a net worth north of $425 million obliterated records for a Tampa mayor's race, spending almost $3 million in just 10 months. About 96 percent of that was money Straz loaned his own campaign, records show.

What did he get for it?

Straz received just 15.5 percent of the votes cast in Tuesday's mayoral primary. That was 32 percentage points behind runoff opponent Jane Castor. Including her Tampa Strong political committee, the former Tampa police chief spent almost $500,000 on the primary.

That performance has led some political professionals to question whether Straz is getting value for his money.

"I would start out by getting rid of everyone who works for him and get a new staff," said Anthony Pedicini, a GOP consultant who isn't working for either campaign. "He ended up paying more than $400 a vote. That's insane."

A cottage industry of political businesses have benefited from Straz's largesse, records show.

Fletcher Ridge and Company, a Nashville firm that booked his TV spots, received $1.6 million. Almost $200,000 went to Fieldworks, a D.C. firm that provides doorstep canvassers. Another $100,000 went to The Kitchens Group, an Orlando polling and research company, and about $96,000 was paid to The Tyson Organization to target voters by telephone.

And local printing firm Gunn Printing and Litho snagged more than $50,000 worth of business printing Straz mailers and invitations.

Straz's campaign team was also expensive, with a campaign manager, a deputy campaign manager, a field organizer, an outreach director and social media manager on the payroll. Campaign manager Mark Hanisee, a former Pinellas Democratic Party chairman, was paid $5,300 per month.

At least one poll suggests their efforts were somewhat successful in moving the needle. A St. Pete Polls survey in May just a few days after Straz announced his candidacy put his support at 7.8 percent, roughly half of what he polled in Tuesday's election.

But does a distant second place represent a good return after spending more than double the previous record for a mayoral race, set in 2003 by Frank Sanchez, who lost to Pam Iorio?

Communications Director Jarrod Holbrook, who was paid $40,000 between November and February, said it does.

"We mostly finished second everywhere, which was our strategy," he said in an email.

Still, deputy campaign manager Meri Forte-Namuj, who was paid $4,000 a month, was fired just two days after Tuesday's election, suggesting that Straz's campaign may be rethinking its strategy.

April Schiff, a Republican campaign consultant who worked on Dick Greco Jr.'s unsuccessful mayoral campaign, said it was unusual to see a candidate for local office run a largely self-funded campaign. Her sense was that his willingness to plow money into his bid to be mayor affected the decisions made by his team.

"I got the impression it was 'We're going to do anything any one suggests because we can afford to do it,'" Schiff said. "It didn't appear to me that it was a strategically planned campaign."

Straz's campaign also has been a windfall for some local media outlets.

He spent more than $21,000 advertising in the The Florida Sentinel Bulletin, a black community newspaper, and almost $11,000 in La Gaceta, a tri-lingual publication.

The campaign also paid more than $30,000 to the Political Victory Company, a direct mail firm owned by La Gaceta publisher Patrick Manteiga. And Straz's campaign is based in a building that Manteiga co-owns. Rent and utility payments totaling almost $20,000 were paid to his business partner, Armando Celeiro, records show.

Both publications endorsed Straz, who also spent about $4,000 on digital advertisements with the Tampa Bay Times.

The biggest recipient of Castor's campaign war-chest was Multi Media Services, a Virginia-based firm paid about $157,000 to buy and coordinates spots on TV, radio and online.

Deliver Strategies, a direct mail firm whose clients include state Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, was paid about $106,000.

Castor also has paid $41,500 to Mercury Public Affairs for consulting. Her campaign events were generally less lavish than Straz's though she did spend $736 with Balloonz Unlimited and $2,000 sponsoring a Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee event.

Straz has pledged to spend whatever it takes to be Tampa's next mayor ahead of the April 23 runoff . But political strategist Steve Schale said Straz faces an uphill battle to overturn Castor's large lead.

"She's been the overwhelming front-runner from the very beginning and I think all of her challengers were facing a very steep hill," he said. "Sometimes, the answer is just as simple as voters just aren't that interested in looking for another option, no matter how much is spent."

Times staff writer Charlie Frago contributed to this story.

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.