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Anonymous texts latest weapon in Tampa's mayoral race

Texts targeting mayoral candidates Harry Cohen and David Straz were sent to Tampa residents Tuesday night.
Who sent anonymous texts targeting Tampa mayoral candidates Harry Cohen and David Straz? It’s a mystery.
Photo Credit: Luis Santan
Who sent anonymous texts targeting Tampa mayoral candidates Harry Cohen and David Straz? It’s a mystery. Photo Credit: Luis Santan
Published Feb. 20, 2019

TAMPA — The text messages started vibrating and chiming on phones Tuesday night, pushing negative narratives about mayoral candidates Harry Cohen and David Straz.

Texts raising questions about Cohen's campaign donors appeared to be sent to registered Democrats across Tampa. A text linking Straz to Andrew Gillum, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee whom Straz backed, was apparently sent to non-party affiliated and Republican voters.

Lynn Hurtak, an Old Seminole Heights resident and civic activist, got the Cohen text. Her husband, Tim Burke, received the Straz text. They both noticed that neither text had a disclaimer and the numbers appeared untraceable.

When Hurtak posted on Facebook about the text, she got a lot of responses from people who had received the same one. The sender didn't respond to requests to identify which campaign they were working for.

"I think it needs to stop. If this is going to be allowed it has to be clear who is paying for it," she said.

Mark Herron, a Tallahassee election and campaign finance expert, said state election law and technology aren't in sync. As long as the texts are under 200 characters they don't need a disclaimer, he said.

"So people can bomb away," he said.

The texts targeting Cohen and Straz, though, had links attached. And Hurtak put her text into a character counter program and it counted 277.

The texts could be a violation of federal communication law, which prohibits mass texts without the prior consent of those receiving them, according to the Federal Communications Commission's website.

In the 2011 mayoral contest between Bob Buckhorn and Rose Ferlita, it was unsourced mailers eventually linked to Ferlita supporters that caused a stir. Eight years later, the battlefield of dirty politics has moved from mailboxes into people's pockets.

Cohen called it "shameful."

"You should stand behind what you say," Cohen said. He said he'll seek legal advice on the legality of the texts.

The Straz campaign released a statement saying it doesn't use programs designed to send unsolicited texts.

" We believe such unsolicited text messages are an intrusion on the privacy of people and actually does more harm than good," read a statement emailed by spokesman Jarrod Holbrook.

Dick Greco Jr. said his campaign isn't involved, including his affiliated political committee, 4 Tampa.

"That's not the way I campaign. Absolutely not," he said.

Jane Castor's campaign also issued a statement.

"The Castor campaign had absolutely nothing to do with that. It's unfortunate someone thinks they need to tear down others to win and doesn't even have the guts to use his name,'' campaign manager Tim Wagner wrote. "Jane is focused on listening to voters and sharing her positive vision for Tampa."

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Mike Suarez said his campaign had nothing to do with the texts. He called their messages muddled and ineffective.

"I wouldn't spend time, money or any energy to do something as weak as that," Suarez said, adding his wife received a text targeting Cohen.

Topher Morrison said his campaign wasn't involved. His assessment? "It reeks of desperation."

Ed Turanchik said the texts didn't come from his campaign.

The election is March 5. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters proceed to an April 23 runoff.

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)8993-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.