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Carlton: Civility in politics? The Tampa mayor’s race shows it’s possible

Tampa's mayoral candidates are on stage for the start of an Oct. 3 debate at Hillsborough Community College. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]
Friday 2 November 2018 05.30

We hurtle toward next week’s big election in a hurricane of anger and insult, with some mailers you can barely hold in your hands without burning your fingers.

In some cases, it’s less impassioned politicking, more all-out dumpster fire.

This is true even in some races as local as the Hillsborough County Commission, with candidates insinuating their opponents have dark plans for you. Or a state race in which your choices are, if you believe what the ads say, a candidate who’s against teachers and school kids or a tax cheat, depending. There’s even an ugly smear attempt in a normally dignified race for judge, and another judicial candidate using his more generic middle name because he doesn’t want the "ethnicity" of his first name to hurt him with voters.

Sigh.

Then, there’s this quiet pocket of politics in the city of Tampa.

I know it’s early to talk about the race to replace term-limited Mayor Bob Buckhorn since the city election isn’t until March. But the made-for-TV cast of characters is busy stumping away, having already participated in not one, but two debates. Well, except one notable no-show candidate who got even more notable once he did show.

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So, any raising of voices or maligning of character?

Perhaps a sly racist or sexist innuendo — a wink and a nod to like-minded voters to indicate it’s okay to indulge their ugliest thoughts because, hey, elected officials and candidates do it?

Refreshing is not a word you hear much in politics. City Council member and mayoral candidate Harry Cohen regularly names civility in politics as a priority, and the others in the race seem to agree.

No one said a word of derision when gazillionaire philanthropist and candidate David Straz — the no-show at first — at the second debate read from prepared notes for many of his answers rather than talking off the cuff as is custom, bolstering the perception that he’s not quite ready for prime time.

Then again, maybe bringing a cheat sheet speaks for itself.

Former police Chief Jane Castor took a gentle if deserved poke at newcomer candidate Topher Morrison for his wacky urban-gondolas-in-the-sky idea for future city transportation, but this was collegial rather than belittling. City Council member Mike Suarez challenged former county Commissioner Ed Turanchik on his role in a previous stadium deal — not a scattershot blast, but a fair point.

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Even when some of the candidates corrected political newcomer LaVaughn King’s implication that they had not attended the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade, it sounded like setting the record straight, not somebody yelling Fake News. The candidates actually said things like "I agree with what so-and-so said" and afterward shook hands, and not in that sour I-would-rather-dip-my-fingers-in-boiling-oil sort of way.

Lately, it has become especially clear that the words and the tone from our political leaders and those who aspire to be them matter greatly — that there are potential rippling implications when the message is tinged with anger and even hate. That even madmen might take cues from what they think they hear from people in power.

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Okay, so it’s early. Maybe after next week is decided at the polls, these mayoral candidates will get down and dirty, too.

Or maybe in one local election, we get the novelty of civility in politics.

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