TAMPA— A few days before voters went to the polls in the first round of Tampa's mayoral election, the David Straz campaign was in an uproar over a missing $225,000.
Straz said he was freezing campaign spending until the missing money could be accounted for, members of his team said, but no one could come up with an answer.
The reason, they said: Political consultant Bill Fletcher was the only one who knew how campaign money was being spent.
A losing campaign that broke records for the size of its war chest — possibly approaching $6 million by the time it's all tallied — proved to be an outlier in one other respect, too.
"He literally had control of everything," said campaign manager Mark Hanisee. "No one ever saw the budget so we didn't know if we were within the budget or outside the budget."
In the end, the matter of the missing money faded and the campaign spending resumed.
And when all was said and done, Straz had little to show for his money, losing the election to former police chief Jane Castor by a 73-27 percentage point margin.
Straz spent $345 per vote to Castor's $44, nearly all of it from the 76-year-old retired banker's $426 million fortune.
In the Straz camp, when questions arise about how lopsided spending could end in such a lopsided loss, fingers point to Fletcher.
Straz hired Fletcher and staffers say that Straz's confidence in the consultant never wavered until the Election Night results appeared.
The Nashville-based consultant had the purse strings while also directing millions of dollars to his own company to buy TV, radio and digital advertising. He answered only to Straz, a political novice.
Near-total power wielded by a single consultant — especially in a campaign with as many employees as Straz had — is highly unusual and potentially dangerous, said veteran Tampa Bay political consultant Adam Goodman.
"There's a reason why we have checks and balances in government and the same reason holds in campaigns," Goodman said.
For his part, Fletcher isn't talking.
He hasn't responded to requests for comment about interviews conducted by the Tampa Bay Times with nearly a dozen people who worked for the campaign or served on its steering committee during Straz' year-long run for mayor.
In a Twitter exchange with the Times the week before the election, about his work for the campaign, Fletcher said, "I grew up spending my summers in Polk County, picking oranges in my great grandfather's grove. I've been working politics at the highest levels in Florida since 1984 and I don't intend to stop anytime soon."
One thing is clear, though: Fletcher's firm, Fletcher Ridge and Co., emerged a winner financially from the Tampa mayor's race, raking in more than $2.8 million — about half the campaign war chest. That's how much the firm had received by April 18, the latest date covered by campaign finance filings and five days before the election.
Most of this money went for media buys, but campaign staffers like Hanisee said no one knew how much Fletcher kept as profit because he never accounted to them for the money.
Political consultants take a percentage of money paid to a TV or radio station for an ad — typically 10 to 15 percent, but often less.
Nick Hansen, a veteran bay area political consultant who ran a failed 2017 comeback campaign by former St. Petersburg mayor Rick Baker, favors a concentration of power because it can head off chaos in a campaign that is by nature temporary.
"One person has to be in charge," Hansen said.
At the same time, though, transparency is crucial, he said — widening the circle of those in the know.
"That was for my own protection," Hansen said.
The tight hold on financial information concerned many in the Straz camp, they said, and it ran parallel with a lack of collaboration over a campaign message.
READ MORE: Jane Castor wins big in Tampa mayor's race
Fletcher, a 60-year-old former reporter for the now defunct Nashville Banner, didn't listen to people who are long-time observers of Tampa's political scene like La Gaceta owner and publisher Patrick Manteiga and political activist Albert Fox Jr.
They say Fletcher ignored suggestions to alter the tone of his ads, which often had a conspiratorial edge. He spent money without checking with anyone in the well-staffed campaign except Straz and his wife Catherine Lowry Straz. He hired vendors from out of state to recruit sign-wavers and create campaign jingles. He even restricted staff access to the candidate.
That approach didn't change even after Castor nearly won the election outright March 5, tripling Straz's vote total and just missing the 50 percent threshhold.
Aaron Darr, who quit the campaign in February after serving briefly as finance director, said he couldn't see the campaign budget and wasn't allowed to help prepare campaign finance reports. When Darr approached Catherine Straz, he said, she dismissed his concerns about Fletcher's expertise or motives.
"She said, 'That's so cute. We would never let anybody do that,'" Darr recalled. "He absolutely wiped David Straz completely dry."
Jarrod Holbrook, still working as Straz campaign spokesman in the week after the election, said the campaign doesn't comment on internal matters. David and Catherine Straz are spending private time with family and are unavailable for comment, Holbrook said.
Manteiga, a member of the steering committee and a direct-mail vendor, quit the campaign in early March after a disagreement with Fletcher. He said Fletcher's skills as a salesman won over Straz and effectively sidelined the rest of the staff.
"Fletcher promised the world. But he didn't deliver the world," Manteiga said. "I couldn't work with Bill Fletcher. I couldn't work for him."
Outgoing Tampa City Council Chairman Frank Reddick was an early Straz supporter. He praised Fletcher for following Reddick's advice on how to attract black voters, but said, overall, it was a mistake to hire an out-of-state consultant, especially one who didn't appear eager to learn about Florida's third-largest city.
"He's from Tennessee. It might have been the first time he'd been to Tampa," Reddick said. "He lacked the knowledge of the political culture."
By cutting off the people with the local knowledge, Fletcher may have increased his power, Reddick said.
"Mr. Straz was a novice political figure. He didn't understand the political procedure," Reddick said. "I don't know if he convinced Mr. Straz that he needed to have that control."
Former Plant City mayor John Dicks, a member of the Straz steering committee, defended the role Fletcher assumed, saying he has a good reputation as a consultant. Any strategy or management style, Dicks said, faced tough odds against a candidate as well known as Jane Castor.
"I'm sure there's frustration," he said. "There is any time you lose a campaign. People try to be Monday morning quarterbacks."
Ultimately, responsibility for the role Fletcher played lies with Straz, consultant Goodman said.
"Straz prided himself on being and often proclaimed himself a very, very successful businessman," Goodman said. "Money certainly doesn't buy you everything, and certainly doesn't buy you wisdom in politics."
Contact Charlie Frago at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago. Contact Christopher O'Donnell at email@example.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow@codonnell_Times