How David Straz, philanthropist turned conspiracy monger, might repair his image

The retired banker lost big in a Tampa mayor’s race where he chose to go negative. But the way back may be right in his wheelhouse: Doing good works.
Published April 29
Updated April 29

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TAMPA — David Straz was the epitome of generosity, the face of community engagement among the city's affluent elite.

His name is stamped on the city's performing arts center and a University of Tampa dormitory. He bankrolled a manatee care center for Zoo Tampa at Lowry Park and contributes every year, often anonymously, to hospitals and charities.

Then the 76-year-old retired banker decided to run for mayor.

First, jaws dropped at his spending on the race. The final tally won't be known until July, but it will likely approach $6 million — a regional record for local office. The money went for lavish salaries, custom cigars, lots of sign-wavers and door-knockers making at least $15 an hour. You may have seen the car circling town wrapped in the Straz campaign logo. And all those commercials.

But more than the money, it was the tone of Straz's campaign that shocked people who know him from the charity black-tie events.

His television ads and mailers portray an angry conspiracy monger who sees Tampa as a corrupt city controlled by insiders lining their pockets with public money. Straz avoided many public forums as a candidate, but when he did appear, he often doubled down on this contemptuous vision of Tampa — calling for an investigation of Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and portraying his opponent Jane Castor as a lying, greedy patsy of the "cabal."

Then came Tuesday's bone-jarring loss.

All that money, all those burned bridges, only to achieve a 73-27 percentage point spanking that’s likely to be remembered as a cautionary tale for any candidates who think they can buy their way into office.

Can he dust himself off and get back into the same social circles he has lately derided as a good-old-boys club?

Longtime Tampa public relations professional Beth Leytham said Straz got bad advice about whether to run and questioned the motives of those who helped him spend so much of his personal wealth on a campaign with little chance of success.

He was out of his element as a candidate, Leytham said, and the result is a big loss and tarnished image.

“I think he has done enormous damage to his legacy. Shame on the people that propped him up and let him do that,” she said. “He’s a 76-year-old man with a reputation for being accomplished. We saw just the opposite in this campaign.”

Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a Castor fan, had a more blunt assessment on Election Day, calling Straz a victim of “elder abuse.”

It will take time for Straz to restore his image, said Emilia Kalogiannis, co-founder and public relations director of Socially, a Tampa public relations strategy and social media branding firm.

She has a suggestion: "Straz named several areas and initiatives within Tampa that he believed to be neglected so pursuing those issues through his personal efforts would be beneficial."

Others, among them Straz supporters, agree that money may be the path to reputation rehabilitation.

"I don’t know of anybody that would tell David, ‘David, I don’t want your $1 million check for my organization," said Patrick Manteiga, owner and publisher of La Gaceta and an advisor to the Straz campaign before a falling out within the campaign. "They would say, "Let us toast to your health.'"

Tampa has a rich history, Manteiga said, of rogues who never had their names stricken from the city's social register.

Straz's only sin: “He got rough in the game of politics, oh my God!” Manteiga said in mock horror.

Others say Straz should work to show that his campaign message about official neglect in the neighborhoods of East and West Tampa wasn't just a ham-fisted attempt to buy votes.

The Rev. Willie G. Dixon, who was encouraged by the Straz message, was put off by some of the candidate’s tactics.

"He did the same things Trump did,” Dixon said. “He learned a lesson: He's not Donald Trump.”

But Dixon said he believes that the philanthropist worth nearly a half-billion dollars is better than the campaign image and that his heart is in the right place.

Straz was moved, Dixon said, by the poverty and dilapidated infrastructure he saw in Tampa’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods.

"Maybe he will do some things in the black community rather than go to Africa," said Dixon, speaking of Straz's charitable work in Liberia. "Charity begins at home."

Peggy Land, a South Tampa political and environmental activist who has mixed in Tampa society for seven decades, is a friend of Straz and said she feels bad for him. She knows him as a humble, warm-hearted man who has donated his time and money to the homeless.

"I wanted David to come out better," Land said. "The campaign should have done a better job for him."

Campaign spokesman Jarrod Holbrook declined comment for this story. He said Straz is taking some time to be alone with family and couldn't be reached for comment.

Incoming City Council member Bill Carlson, a public relations executive, said he is willing to bet that a poll of Straz's reputation would show very little damage has been done.

Nobody could have beaten Castor, Carlson said. A positive message wouldn't have made a difference. And the negative campaign wasn't reputation killing.

"My recommendation would be that he not make as many anonymous donations, and put his name on more things," Carlson said.

After all, he said, Tampa — like the United States — has a cultural predilection for makeovers.

"We love to give people multiple chances and let them reinvent themselves.”

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago. Contact Chrisopther O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow@codonnell_Times.

David Straz: Charitable giving

Through his foundation, the losing Tampa mayoral candidate has donated more than $10.5 million since 2014. Some highlights:

David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, $5.78 million

Berkeley Preparatory School, $1.84 million

The Metropolitan Opera (New York), $1.27 million

Lowry Park Zoological Park, $800,000

Northwestern University (Illinois), $270,600

Carthage College (Wisconsin), $183,350

Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy, $89,312

Source: Internal Revenue Service filings

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