Carlton: Where was David Straz, Tampa man of principle?

David Straz took a stand when he was on the Tampa General Hospital's governing board. What happened to that guy?  [DIRK SHADD   |   Times (2013)]
David Straz took a stand when he was on the Tampa General Hospital's governing board. What happened to that guy? [DIRK SHADD | Times (2013)]
Published May 1, 2019

Before he ran a disastrous campaign to be Tampa's next mayor, David Straz made news as a man of principle.

Back in 2016, the generous philanthropist whose name graces the performing arts center everyone calls "the Straz" was one of 15 citizens — many of them prominent and wealthy — to serve on the governing board of Tampa General Hospital.

For the record, this is a town that considers its hospital, much like its airport and its zoo, a point of pride. Opened on Davis Islands in 1927, Tampa General's Level 1 trauma center and burn unit take in patients from all over. It's also an important safety net hospital for the poor.

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Tampa General's governing board has traditionally met several times a year and forms committees on everything from finance to quality. Board members have included kings of Gasparilla, yacht club regulars, doctors, civic leaders, business types and some of Tampa's storied surnames. For decades, being on that board was considered both an honor and a public service. An unpaid one, it went without saying.

That is, until board members voted to compensate themselves between $15,000 to $30,000 a year, depending on their duties. Straz was outraged. "A horrible idea," he said.

"Tampa General is a very important community asset," he said. "Those of us in the community need to donate our services to make those kinds of things better for all of our people in the community."

Since board members weren't exactly advertising this, it took awhile for the news to get out. By the time I heard and wrote about it, Straz had already resigned in protest from the board on which he had proudly served for nearly 20 years, saying his time would be better donated elsewhere.

A day after the pay proposition made headlines, the board hastily abandoned it.

Sure, you could argue that with his millions and Monets, Straz could easily afford to push back, that a salary like that wouldn't cover his dry cleaning. But he also could have not bothered, and I admired that he did, in a small but telling moment.

So during his recent campaign against former police chief Jane Castor, which he narrated with unsubstantiated allegations of corruption, dishonesty and a budget fat with pork he could not name, I wondered:

What happened to the Straz who took a stand?

And a follow-up question for those who guided his campaign — or, one could argue, didn't:

Where was the story of a principled protest on that hospital board? Why wasn't this tale of Tampa's tradition and its heart a chapter in his candidacy?

Instead they had him making fiery accusations without much to back them up. With his abysmal showing of 27 percent of the vote despite spending what could come close to $6 million, people around town wonder now how Straz, 76, gets his good name back.

Here's another Tampa tradition: Forgiveness, or at least an underdog spirit of live and let live. All Straz did was run an embarrassing campaign. We've had judges engulfed in actual scandal who went on to successful legal careers. We watch with amusement as a former county commissioner who did prison time in a bribery mess regularly and doggedly runs for office, thus far unsuccessfully. (We're forgiving, not crazy.)

Some opine that Straz makes his comeback spreading money around like he always has, just maybe not so anonymously.

I'd like to see that guy who stood up for a basic right and wrong, and for Tampa.

Contact Sue Carlton at