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  1. Florida Politics

In the early 1900s, Tampa was infamous for its corrupt elections

A painting by the late-Ferdie Pacheco, a Tampa artist and historian, that hangs in a little-used stairwell of Tampaâ\u0080\u0099s Old City Hall captures the clashes that enveloped the city during voting in the 1935 Tampa mayor's race. [Times files]
A painting by the late-Ferdie Pacheco, a Tampa artist and historian, that hangs in a little-used stairwell of Tampaâ\u0080\u0099s Old City Hall captures the clashes that enveloped the city during voting in the 1935 Tampa mayor's race. [Times files]
Published Nov. 11, 2018

Florida faces legal challenges and as-yet unfounded claims of voter fraud as it undergoes a sprawling recount of 8 million statewide ballots. If this year's general election seems chaotic, consider what happened historically in Tampa, where accusations of election fraud were once the norm — and true.

Here are some of the more notable examples:

A popular story among local historians occurred during the Roaring '20s. Organized crime was rampant in Tampa. The nationwide ban on alcohol known as Prohibition was ongoing, yet local law enforcement, historians say, did little at the time to shut down the city's numerous speakeasies.

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"It was a common, accepted occurrence," the late Ferdie Pacheco, a Tampa historian and artist, told the Tampa Tribune in 2013. "Tampa sheriffs were used to being on a payroll from outlaws since the beginning of organized crime in Tampa."

Then in 1928, with the promise that he'd clean up the agency, Luther Hatton, an Army veteran with no previous ties to law enforcement, ran for Hillsborough County sheriff.

Hatton was expected to earn his biggest support in Hyde Park. On election day, two masked gunmen stormed into a polling station there and stole the ballot box.

PREVIOUS: Hillsborough sheriff lost battle with Gov. Carlton in 1929

The ballots were recovered in a chase, but the masked men were not caught. Hatton won.

Still, nine months after being sworn in, Hatton was suspended by the governor for aiding the criminals he was elected to arrest. Hatton denied the claims. The book, A History of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, says Hatton was vindicated in 1931 by a Senate committee.

•••

An alleged high-water mark for Tampa's corruption occurred in 1934, when Claude Pepper and Park Trammell competed for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate.

Pepper lost the primary by fewer than 2,000 votes.

But he lost in Ybor City and West Tampa by around 5,500 votes.

A story that historian Gary Mormino has told over the years relays a rumor that Charlie Wall, then considered "dean of the Tampa underworld," took credit for Pepper's loss.

It's been said that Wall and his henchmen personally oversaw the vote counts in the Latin districts. In one precinct, Wall supposedly declared Pepper would only receive two votes — those of a husband and wife known to support the campaign.

In West Tampa's Precinct 34, according to Tampa Times election results, Trammell received 341 votes to Pepper's 2. In Ybor's Precinct 26, the vote count was 446 to 1 in favor of Trammell.

It's unclear why Wall would have preferred Trammell, who has never been linked to organized crime.

•••

The next year, the governor ordered the Florida National Guard to oversee voting in a Tampa mayoral election between D.B. McKay and Robert E. Lee Chancey — a race that was predicted to turn violent and corrupt.

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The presence of Guardsmen provided only scant deterrence. Rival factions sought to control the ballot boxes as a hurricane sideswiped the Gulf Coast and Tampa was lashed with 65-mph winds. No one was killed, but four people were shot.

"Scores of heads were cracked," the Tampa Morning Tribune reported. And a police officer was charged with stuffing pre-marked ballots for Chancy.

Chancey won, but McKay claimed more ballots were counted than the total number of people who showed up to the polls.

Historian Pacheco later memorialized the dark day with a colorful painting.

•••

And then there was "the list."

In December 1948, gangster Jimmy Velasco was gunned down on the streets of Ybor as his wife and child looked on.

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His brothers then went public with Velasco's ties to organized crime. Velasco, they said, was murdered by gangsters who worried he was growing too powerful.

Then they detailed in a written statement how, at the request of alleged crime boss Santo Trafficante, Velasco moved back to Tampa from California to spend $29,000 to influence the 1947 city election.

As proof of the close ties between organized crime and the city government, the brothers released Velasco's "pay off list." It detailed some of his financial favors to elected officials, including to Mayor Curtis Hixon.

Ultimately, the list was declared a hoax, because neither local nor state investigators could prove otherwise. Joe Provenzano, who was charged with the murder of Velasco, was acquitted.

In the 1950s, Tampa was listed as one of the most corrupt cities in the United States by the Kefauver Commission charged was investigating organized crime throughout the nation. Among the examples cited for Tampa's inclusion on the list was the Velasco case.

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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