Mailers from mystery backers attack council critics of Tampa Mayor Jane Castor

Incumbents Bill Carlson and Lynn Hurtak, targets of the mailers, are seeking a return to their seats.
Tampa City Council incumbent Bill Carlson has been the target of multiple attack campaign mailers from mystery backers.
Tampa City Council incumbent Bill Carlson has been the target of multiple attack campaign mailers from mystery backers. [ William March ]
Published Feb. 25, 2023|Updated Feb. 25, 2023

In two of the more contentious Tampa City Council races in recent memory, negative attack mailers from veiled sources are going out against South Tampa district council member Bill Carlson and citywide incumbent Lynn Hurtak.

No one involved in the races is taking responsibility for the mailers, and because of their timing, information on who’s paying for them may not be clear until after the March 7 election.

In an interview, Bake Casper, the restaurateur challenging Carlson, denied knowing about the mailers or their origin.

Former state Sen. Janet Cruz, who is challenging Hurtak, and former Mayor Bob Buckhorn, both of whom have their own political committees, denied having given any money to the groups sending out the mailers. Buckhorn is a bitter political opponent of Carlson and an ally of Cruz and Mayor Jane Castor, the domestic partner of Cruz’s daughter.

When asked whether he or his own PAC have contributed or will contribute to the two political committees sending the mailers, Buckhorn said via email that they have not, but added, “Whatever contributions have been made will be available at the appropriate reporting period.”

The anti-Carlson mailers are linked to a local Republican political operative, Anthony Pedicini, who’s known for using shell political committees to launch attacks against his clients’ opponents, while his clients often deny knowledge.

Council races are nonpartisan, but Carlson is a Democrat — though not highly active in the party. Casper is a Republican and large-scale donor to GOP candidates, including Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis and Anna Paulina Luna.

The anti-Hurtak mailers, calling her “Lying Lynn Hurtak” and a “radical activist,” are coming from a committee named Comite Politico, led by Jason Blank, a Democratic lawyer from Fort Lauderdale, who like Pedicini is associated with numerous shell political committees.

Under Florida law, such committees are allowed to shift money back and forth among themselves, often disguising the sources of money used for political advertising.

Both Hurtak and Cruz are Democrats. Blank and committees associated with him have been major donors to Cruz’s past campaigns, her PAC and current council race.

The mailers attack Hurtak and Carlson for, among other things, voting in September for a pay raise for City Council members, from $52,060 to $73,713 a year.

The raise was actually a recommendation of Mayor Jane Castor based on salaries for other city councils and Tampa city employees after one council member requested a study. The council voted it down 4-3, with Carlson, Hurtak and Orlando Gudes in favor, but Carlson also said he announced he wouldn’t accept the extra money.

Asked about the mailers, Casper said, “I don’t have anything to do with them, I haven’t seen them and don’t know who’s doing it, but I assume stuff like that’s going to happen … I don’t have any formal relationship with Anthony, whatever his last name is.”

But, he said, “If you’re going to get in the race and you want to be in the ring, these are the things that happen.”

Casper said he expects to receive attacks from allies of Carlson.

The anti-Carlson mailers came from an organization called Save Our Quality of Life, whose address is that of Pedicini’s Ybor City office.

Neither Pedicini nor Wendy K. White, listed at the same address on state registration papers as the committee’s chairman, treasurer and registered agent, responded to phone messages for comment.

Since its 2020 creation, most of Save Our Quality of Life’s expenditures, $281,498, have gone to Pedicini’s firm to pay for political advertising, consulting and mailings. Close to half its income of $554,287 has come from another committee headed by Pedicini.

Pedicini has a history of working in partisan races, particularly for state legislative seats, always for Republicans, but was also an advisor to Castor’s 2019 campaign.

The most recent campaign finance report filed by both committees covers only through the end of January, at which point Save Our Quality of Life had about $20,573 in the bank. It’s questionable, said local political insiders, whether that would be enough to pay for the three mailers it had sent out by late last week.

But if the committee got more money to pay for them, it won’t show up until the next financial reporting deadline March 10, three days after the election.

Blank didn’t respond to phone or text messages concerning the financing of the anti-Hurtak mailers. Campaign finance records conflict on the state of Comite Politico’s finances at the end of January.