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In Tampa mayor's race, how you say it matters when there are few differences on the issues

The field of seven candidates largely agrees that transit, affordable housing and infrastructure need fixing. So how do they break from the pack?
One of 13 mayoral forums so far was held Jan. 9 at Hillsborough Community College’s Ybor City campus. From left are LaVaughn King, Harry Cohen, Ed Turanchik, David Straz, Mike Suarez, Jane Castor and Topher Morrison.  King didn’t qualify for the race and Dick Greco Jr. hadn’t yet entered the field.
One of 13 mayoral forums so far was held Jan. 9 at Hillsborough Community College’s Ybor City campus. From left are LaVaughn King, Harry Cohen, Ed Turanchik, David Straz, Mike Suarez, Jane Castor and Topher Morrison. King didn’t qualify for the race and Dick Greco Jr. hadn’t yet entered the field.
Published Feb. 1, 2019

TAMPA — There isn't much daylight on the issues between the candidates running to succeed Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

They largely agree on the need to fix the big problems — traffic gridlock and safe travel for bicyclists and pedestrians, a lack of affordable housing, a creaky infrastructure. The candidates in the nonpartisan race do express some differences over policy questions. There's the argument David Straz makes, for example, that private enterprise should take the lead in building homes workers can afford — a view that rival Harry Cohen, a fan of development code incentives to get the job done, called "ridiculous" during a televised debate last month.

But with the March 5 election just over a month away, there is widespread agreement on many things among all the candidates — City Council member Cohen, former police chief Jane Castor, small business consultant Topher Morrison, former county commissioner Ed Turanchik, City Council member Mike Suarez, retired judge Dick Greco Jr. and philanthropist Straz.

Four months and 13 forums after their first one, the candidates' public interaction has largely centered on personality, resumes and broad-brush proposals. They've differentiated themselves not by breaking from the pack on policy — even appropriating one another's talking points — but by the way they deliver their message.

Previous: Tampa mayor's race coming down to affordable housing, transportation

Suarez, who referred to the candidates' "taglines" at a South Tampa forum Wednesday, never misses a chance to suggest to voters that he's the one most in tune with the neighborhoods, promising to pin a "Neighborhood Bill of Rights" on the wall in the mayor's office reminding him to concentrate on public safety, transportation, improved services and integrity.

No forum would be complete without Suarez saying at least once: "Every neighborhood is Tampa."

Cohen usually waves a copy of his four-page transportation plan and pounds on the message that he'll focus like a laser beam on infrastructure — streets, stormwater, sewer and water pipes, and affordable housing.

He and Suarez frequently cite their eight years of experience on the City Council to show they're ready for office.

Former police chief Jane Castor speaks of her "proven leadership," a reference to her tenure as the city's top cop between 2009 and 2015.

Castor points out often that her three decades as a police officer brought her at one point or another to every neighborhood in the city.

"You've had 31 years to test drive me," Castor said at a South Tampa forum Wednesday. It's a line she's test driven at nearly every forum.

Previous: Does the path to Tampa mayor run through East Tampa? Candidates act like it does

Straz, a wealthy former bank owner, is fond of brooms. He likes to talk about how he swept the floors of his first bank in Wisconsin. Using the broom as a symbol of his outsider status, he delivered another variation on the theme Wednesday.

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"I'll take my broom into City Hall and sweep out the waste and fluff that's there," he told a crowd of about 350 who gathered for a forum at St. Mary's Episcopal Day School in Culbreath Heights.

Another self-styled outsider also making his first run for elected office, Morrison tends to present outside-the-box ideas — aerial gondolas, scrapping the building code — and urges the city to rebrand itself as a world-class destination.

A recent tagline? After praising Buckhorn "for getting Tampa to fall back in love with Tampa," Morrison promised to take the next step. "I think now we need a mayor that can get the world to fall in love with Tampa," he said at a University Club forum Jan. 22. Turanchik has released a detailed transportation plan, which he will mention whether or not the question he gets is about transportation. The "Go" plan has morphed into his catchphrase: "You want to go? Go with Ed."

Turanchik has also vied for the mantle of leadership with Castor, frequently rattling off his accomplishments in the course of answering a questions. His wife passed out his two-page resume to anyone who would accept it at two forums this week.

But during a forum Tuesday at Seminole Heights United Methodist Church, even Turanchik conceded that the answers he and his rivals give to policy questions often are very similar.

"It sounds like we're all saying the same things," he said.

Not always, though. Greco, son of former mayor Dick Greco, has stuck largely to a message of connectivity — that the next mayor must be able to work with a host of regional governments and agencies to improve transit, housing and infrastructure.

But in South Tampa on Wednesday, Greco strayed from the script. He criticized elements of the Complete Streets concept — developing travel ways with alternatives to cars in mind — that most of the others candidates have championed.

Then, when asked his opinion on cities that offer sanctuary to undocumented immigrants — Greco turned from the progressive Democratic rhetoric of the other candidates.

"If you come live in Tampa, you're going to get here through legal means and legal ways or you won't be welcome," he said. "I believe in the rule of law."

Asked later to clarify, Greco said he wouldn't go so far as to ask local police to check immigration status, but as a long-time judge he urges those here illegally to pursue a path toward citizenship.

At the forum, his opponents either embraced undocumented immigrants or said Tampa has no control over their detention.

After Greco finished, the next speaker, Cohen, paused a moment. Then he launched into a familiar litany of previous speakers whose answers aligned with his. This time, he didn't mention Greco.

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago .