TAMPA — David Straz regularly says East and West Tampa are being neglected and it's time for the city to share its prosperity with those poorer, minority neighborhoods.
Straz has certainly shared some of his $426 million fortune, digging into his own pocket to pay canvassers and operatives in those neighborhoods in his bid to become Tampa's next mayor.
His campaign is the only one with a contingent of paid workers at events, with several African-American workers wearing Straz T-shirts and waving Straz signs before and after forums.
Last week, he told a predominantly black audience at a NAACP-sponsored forum at Middleton High School that his campaign staff is made up of African-Americans, Muslims, men, woman and people of different sexual orientation.
"I'm all about diversity. I lead by example," Straz said at the Feb. 21 forum. "I pay at $15 an hour, which is the minimum wage I'm proposing as part of my campaign."
Campaign finance documents show that Straz has paid more than $21,000 to dozens of field workers just since January, many with addresses in East and West Tampa. The Tampa Bay Times attempted to contact more than a half-dozen of them. Some declined to comment. Others didn't respond to phone calls or knocks on their doors.
When asked if the campaign is focusing its efforts in those neighborhoods, Straz spokesman Jarrod Holbrook said in an email that workers are active in every Tampa district. Straz and members of his staff declined a request for an interview.
The campaign also has paid $133,271 to a national canvassing company, far more than any of the other six candidates to replace term-limited Mayor Bob Buckhorn in the March 5 election.
Workers hired through Fieldworks, LLC, a Washington, D.C.-based firm, knock on doors to carry the Straz message to everyday voters in a grassroots effort, Holbrook said in his email. The individuals listed in campaign documents, he said, work to generate enthusiasm among "grass tops," or community leaders.
How effective is the largest paid campaign staff in the race?
Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough County NAACP, which has not endorsed any candidate, says the cash flowing into the black community is having a limited effect.
"It's not that strong because what those people are saying is that he's buying our community off with a bunch of empty promises, he's throwing his money around,'' said Lewis, who said she hasn't decided who she'll personally support. "But the thing is a lot of people aren't dumb and stupid so we know that he is buying people off. You can look at it as an insult."
The Rev. Willie G. Dixon, an East Tampa community activist who runs a prison ministry, says he is undecided between Straz and retired Judge Dick Greco Jr.
"Those are the only two who can beat Castor," he said, referring to former Tampa police chief Jane Castor, considered by many the front-runner in the race. Dixon said he opposes Castor because of the disproportionate ticketing of black bicyclists during her tenure as chief, a policy for which she later apologized.
Dixon isn't sure the money Straz is spending is achieving its desired effect — drumming up support for the candidate.
"These people are playing games. They're just taking the money," said Dixon, who says he is telling people who seek his counsel to vote for Straz —for now. The 87-year-old was irked that a Straz media consultant never showed up for an appointment and never canceled, keeping him waiting in his East Tampa office for hours.
The Rev. Michelle B. Patty is backing Greco. She said Straz's message is having some impact among black voters, but largely because of what she calls "false promises."
"What most disturbs me is that he is saying he'll be able to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour for everybody, but he can only do it for city workers," she said.
The Straz campaign responded with this statement: "David Straz has always been clear he will raise the minimum wage for city workers first. He wants to provide moral leadership to the city to show that a $15 minimum wage is both attainable and the right thing to do."
The campaign did not respond when asked why Straz didn't make the distinction at the NAACP forum or in at least one recent mailer.
City Council Chairman Frank Reddick, a prominent Straz supporter, said he thinks Straz's support is growing in the black community, especially after the Florida Sentinel Bulletin endorsed him last week. That endorsement will be helpful among older black voters, he said.
"Most people in the black community were not familiar with David, but he's got a good ground game and it's helping to get his name out there," said Reddick, who represents the only majority-black council district.
Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who hasn't endorsed in the race, is skeptical Straz's cash will win him many black voters.
"I had a thirty-year relationship with the people who live here," Buckhorn said after a groundbreaking Wednesday at Williams Park in East Tampa. "My feeling is you can buy name recognition, but you can't buy affection.''
But at least with some voters, the costly push is paying off.
K.C Williams, 70, paused this week after casting an early vote in East Tampa to say he had picked Straz, citing his promise not to tolerate racial profiling.
"That was one of the main things," he said.
Contact Charlie Frago at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.