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  1. Florida Politics

In tense meeting, Tampa City Council elects Mike Suarez chairman

Mike Suarez was elected chairman of the Tampa City Council on Thursday.
Mike Suarez was elected chairman of the Tampa City Council on Thursday.
Published Apr. 8, 2016

TAMPA — They voted 14 times. They talked about putting names in a hat or rotating the job. They got heckled. And that was before the complaint about political intimidation and throat-slashing.

"I'll raise my left hand," Charlie Miranda said before one vote, "because my right hand's tired."

Finally, more than a half-hour into it, the Tampa City Council on Thursday named Mike Suarez its chairman for the next 12 months.

Usually, picking a chairman is quick and easy. But two things made it harder this year.

First, Mayor Bob Buckhorn could run for governor in 2018, a year before his term ends. Or he might leave office early — if Hillary Clinton is elected president and if she offers him a job. Since the chair moves up if the mayor leaves office early, either scenario could create opportunity for ambitious council members.

So for 13 votes, the council deadlocked.

Over and over, Miranda nominated Suarez, Lisa Montelione nominated Harry Cohen, and Yvonne Yolie Capin nominated Frank Reddick, the chairman for the past year. But when none got four out of seven votes, the process started over, with the same people making the same nominations.

"Seriously?" a woman in the council chambers called out during the seventh round of voting. "Some people don't get paid to have their time wasted."

The impasse was broken after the council decided to vote on the vice chairman first and re-elected Cohen, taking him out of the running for the chairman's job.

But then a second looming issue got shoved into the debate.

Just before the final vote, Reddick said he saw Vincent Gericitano, the president of Tampa's politically powerful police union, the Police Benevolent Association, make a disturbing gesture at the mention of Reddick's name.

"You did this," Reddick told Gericitano, pulling an index finger across his own throat. When Gericitano, who was sitting with other PBA officers, reacted, Reddick said, "Don't sit here and lie. . . . It's shameful that you, in your profession, would do something like that."

Outside the meeting, which union officials left immediately after the council vote, Gericitano said he had "no idea" what Reddick was talking about. If anything, he said, he might have been "fixing my collar."

Still, Reddick's demands for a stronger Citizens Review Board have soured his relationship with the PBA, which opposes activist demands for a police review board that could subpoena officers and have a role in officer hiring. Last September, Gericitano said the city "will get hit with one hell of a lawsuit" if it gave the board subpoena powers, which the city attorney says couldn't be done without changing the charter.

Gericitano said the PBA did not communicate its preferences about Reddick or the council chairman's election to council members before Thursday.

But, he said, "I think the council did the right thing. I think it was a little bit of a circus."

The outcome angered a handful of activists who turned out to support Reddick, the council's lone black member.

"The darkest day . . . in this city since segregation," Michelle Patty said. "You all sat here and watched someone do a throat-cut and not one of you all had the courage to speak out against it."

The chairman's position is largely ceremonial, but there is this perk: If the mayor were to leave office early, then the City Council chair becomes the mayor. If there are less than 15 months remaining in the mayor's term, the chair serves out the term as mayor. If there are more than 15 months left, the city charter requires a special election to be held.

So serving as mayor is seen to help someone who wants to run for mayor. In 1986, then-council Chairwoman Sandy Freedman succeeded then-Mayor Bob Martinez after he resigned to run for governor. In 1987, after serving on an interim basis, Freedman won the first of two four-year terms.

This could be an even more interesting discussion next year. That's when council members will pick a chair who would be serving on Jan. 1, 2018, the point when there will be 15 months left in Buckhorn's second term.

Later, a member of the audience asked whether council members had read a recent Tampa Bay Times column that compared their internal politics to the Netflix political noir drama House of Cards.

"Ya think?" Capin quipped. "Except in House of Cards there's murder. And we don't murder."

Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times