Tampa City Council member Mike Suarez has been raising money and debating opponents for months. On Saturday, he became the last major announced candidate for mayor of Tampa to formally kick off his campaign.
Many of his opponents debuted at prestige venues like the Armature Works, the Cuban Club,the Tampa Theatre, the Tampa Museum of Art or the original Columbia restaurant.
Suarez rented a trolley and drove to each corner of the city to spread his message: he’s the candidate who will champion the neighborhoods against entrenched downtown interests.
In Forest Hills in North Tampa, about fifteen supporters gathered at a community recreation center for coffee and doughnuts as Suarez outlined his platform early Saturday.
Suarez said his opponents former police chief Jane Castor, retired banker and philanthropist David Straz, council member Harry Cohen, former county commissioner Ed Turanchik, branding consultant Topher Morrison held formal events and invited people to come see them.
“Almost none of them go into the neighborhoods,” Suarez said. “Without neighborhoods we don’t have a city.”
He promised to be a mayor that didn’t bunker down in his office, but traveled into every corner of the city on a regular basis.
“We need to make the neighborhoods the center of our civic life,” he said. “Every single neighborhood needs to be strong.”
Present at the Forest Hills event was council member Luis Viera, who is the only council member running for reelection who has formally endorsed a candidate. Suarez endorsed Viera in a hotly contested race in late 2016 to fill the seat of Lisa Montelione.
Phil Roder, former president of the Forest Hills Neighborhood Association, said he’s supporting Suarez because he thinks the term-limited council member will be the mayor for all of Tampa, not just wealthy areas like downtown and South Tampa.
“Mike’s a neighborhood type of guy,” Roder said. “We need a mayor who is concerned about all of Tampa. North of Columbus Avenue has been a little bit ignored in the past.”
Next stop on the tour was Drew’s Treats and Snack Bar in East Tampa’s Jackson Heights neighborhood.
As a couple dozen supporters waited for Drew Shaw to serve up barbeque, Cynthia Few said she was backing Suarez because he regularly checked in with her and her neighbors.
“Out of all the city council members and mayor, he’s the only one that calls on our community in East Tampa, “ said Few, president of the College Hill Neighborhood Association. “He backs up his promises.”
Another neighborhood association president Fran Tate shared similar feelings.
“I pick up the phone and I get answers, “ said Tate, president of the Jackson Heights Neighborhood Association.
She said she had been approached by the Straz and Turanchik campaigns for an endorsement, but it sticking with Suarez.
“He’s familiar with our neighborhood. That’s important to me,” Tate said.
The black vote in East Tampa is sure to be heavily contested in the run up to the March 5 election and, despite his legwork, Suarez isn’t known by all the area’s residents.
Despite the Suarez sign-bedecked trolley and supporters with blue and yellow Suarez shirts, someone called the police about the crowd on the corner of 34th Street and East Osborne Avenue, not realizing it was a campaign event.
The Suarez campaign was also scheduled to visit South and West Tampa on Saturday.
Campaign officials said each neighborhood would get its own yard sign. In Forest Hills, supporters vied for a "Mike For Forest Hills" sign. Before the trolley left for East Tampa, campaign consultant Gregory Wilson attached "Mike for East Tampa" signs on the side of the trolley.
Community activist LaVaughn King and small businessman Michael Anthony Hazard are also in the race, but haven't held press-noticed kick-off events. Hazard's campaign in still in limbo as Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections officials await state direction on Hazard, who has admitted voting as a felon.