Carlton: Candidate admits: I am short and wonky. And other mayor tales.

Tampa voters don't lack for choices in their upcoming election for mayor, including one candidate embracing his essential wonkiness.
Tampa voters have plenty of choices for mayor, including city councilman Harry Cohen, who has embraced his essential wonkiness.  [BRONTE WITTPENN | Times]
Tampa voters have plenty of choices for mayor, including city councilman Harry Cohen, who has embraced his essential wonkiness. [BRONTE WITTPENN | Times]
Published February 13
Updated February 13

Now there’s an election commercial you don't see every day.

Here's Tampa mayoral candidate and city councilman Harry Cohen, asleep, eyebrows all a-twitch as he dreams of, what else: properly managing stormwater to prevent flooding in his city.

Here's Cohen at his computer, nerdily pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose as an announcer notes that he has "passed eight municipal budgets with higher bond ratings!" — the words "bond ratings" never in history having been spoken with this much enthusiasm.

There he is in a fluorescent vest and tie, working officiously in the midst of Tampa's notoriously bad traffic. But most irreverent has to be the scene of the short, stocky politician entering an elevator already occupied by three other business-suited men — the top of his head barely reaching their chins.

"He's not fancy — not tall — but he's got big plans for Tampa," the announcer says.

(Quick fact check here: Cohen, who stands 5-foot-6 (and a half, he says), shares the stage at campaign events with notably taller candidates including former Tampa Police chief Jane Castor, who is 6 feet tall, and former county commissioner Ed Turanchik at a looming 6-foot-5.)

This frenzied end-stretch of a campaign with less than three weeks to go — and with its distinct anything-could-happen vibe — is an interesting moment.

In the race to replace termed-out Mayor Bob Buckhorn (5-foot-9, since you ask), the popular Castor is the front runner, with the rest scrambling behind her in hopes of coming in second to face her in a runoff.

And right now, who's number two is anyone's guess.

Could it be Cohen, the candidate cleverly embracing his own wonkishness — you could even say nerdiness?

Tampa voters can't complain about not having choices. Hopefuls on the ballot are male and female, gay and straight, Hispanic and Anglo, homegrown and imported, uber-rich and less so, politically experienced and lacking a clue. (Though it is disappointing there's no longer a black candidate in the mix.)

City councilman Mike Suarez is all about neighborhoods. Former judge Dickie Greco's family name is political royalty. Also-wonky Turanchik has his following of progressives, and small business guy and long shot Topher Morrison his ideals. And really rich philanthropist David Straz is spending like a guy who has it to spend, and lately making some odd pronouncements to boot.

Choices, choices.

Cohen, lawyer, former deputy clerk of courts and two-term councilman, is the lone Jewish man on the mayoral ballot. This is notable in a place in which political wags will tell you a "Jewish-sounding" name can be a political hindrance, particularly if you're running in the whole of Hillsborough County with its still rural outposts, not just in the city itself.

When I ask about this, Cohen says he believes Tampa is a bigger, more diverse town now. (In fact, Jews were very much a part of the melting pot that built this city.) Still, people sometimes ask him if he's from New York, but no, he was born at St. Joseph's Hospital. His father had a drapery business on Franklin Street that made curtains sold at Maas Brothers department stores.

"The grand paella that is Tampa has a lot of ingredients in it," Cohen says (in a rather Buckhornian soundbite.)

Also interesting: when front runner Castor was asked at a forum who she would vote for if she couldn't vote for herself, she said Cohen.

In short, the whole deal's up for grabs.

If you happen to care about who runs Tampa next, this finale, or finale to the finale, should be fun. Someone will implode. Someone will say something outrageous.

And maybe, someone will surprise us.

Contact Sue Carlton at scarlton@tampabay.com.

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