TAMPA-- The home stretch of the Tampa mayor's race has turned to a big slice of the city's demographic pie: Latino voters.
In two mayoral forums, many of the candidates gamely tried out elementary Spanish and promised to listen to the concerns of a diverse community. And they appealed for votes from a fast-changing part of the electorate that makes up about a quarter of the city's population, most recently with an influx of Puerto Rican voters.
One constant? Retired banker and philanthropist David Straz didn't show up for either event. He was recently endorsed by La Gaceta, which publishes in Spanish as well as English and Italian. The newspaper's owner, Patrick Manteiga, is a Straz supporter.
His campaign has said in the past that Straz has charitable commitments that keep him from attending forums. He's missed at least a third of the two dozen or so gatherings so far. City Council members Harry Cohen and Mike Suarez missed a Thursday morning forum at Hillborough Community College's Ybor City campuse because it coincided with a council meeting.
Questions asked at the Thursday morning forum and a Friday evening event in North Tampa at Ana G. Méndez University System focused on what kind of outreach to the city's Latino community would the next mayor would be prepared to offer.
Former county commissioner Ed Turanchik said he would hire a diversity and inclusion officer, a promise he has made at other forums. City Council member Mike Suarez vowed to make his current legislative aide, Lorena Rivas Hardwick, the city's first Latina chief of staff. Former police chief Jane Castor promised to make the city's website more helpful and informative for Spanish speakers. Branding consultant Topher Morrison said he'd call President Donald Trump to tell him the federal government's response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico was inadequate.
Castor said her three decades as a police officer, which ended with her tenure as chief between 2009 and 2015, proves her dedication to diversity. Police work taught her the importance Spanish-language liaisons to communities often distrustful of police officers, she said.
"I don't have to make promises about what I'll do in the future. You just have to look at my past. I've done that," Castor said at the Hispanic Advisory Council forum when asked what steps she would take to include Latinos in her administration.
Many of the topics in the two forums covered familiar ground like affordable housing and improved transit options. But at Friday night's well-attended event, residents asked questions about hunger, human trafficking and English language classes, topics that hadn't been raised at all during a long campaign.
That resonated with City Council member Harry Cohen.
"When you go around the city there are challenges. And the challenges are different. And it's very, very important to listen," Cohen said. "That's what it's going to take to make this an even greater city."
As Suarez pointed out, Tampa has a history of Latino involvement in government since 1895 when the first Hispanic member council member was elected. Suarez, the only Latino in the race, told the crowd in North Tampa of his family's history as cigar workers and butchers.
"Their story is your story," Suarez said.
Candidates frequently sought to connect. Retired Judge Dick Greco Jr. and Morrison asked for support in Spanish. And Turanchik talked about his wife's family's Hispanic roots, joking he would change his name to "Eduardo."
It wasn't all attempts at finding common ground.
As he has said in previous forums, Greco Jr. said he wouldn't want to advertise Tampa as a sanctuary city. He also said he wouldn't want police involved in checking immigration status.
Greco Jr. also made the case that his Spanish and Italian heritage gave him a special access into the Latino community given Tampa's history.
"Tampa is one of the only places I've ever been in the U.S. where everyone here whose last name ends in a vowel or a Z can say you're Latino and nobody will beat you up. You can go to other places in America where you've got to say what heritage you are and where you're from, you can't just say you're a Latin because people get offended at that," he said at the Thursday forum.
He didn't repeat that assertion on Friday, but challenged Telemundo49 anchor Cristina Puig when she referred to those coming to Tampa after the hurricane as Puerto Ricans.
"Puerto Ricans are Americans just like people from New Orleans," he said to applause.
Later, though, Puig asked the crowd, which had a large contingent of Puerto Ricans, in Spanish whether they considered themselves Puerto Ricans first and Americans second. She got a louder round of applause.
The election is March 5. Early voting begins Monday.
Contact Charlie Frago at email@example.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.