Forums-R-Us: Tampa’s Mayoral Race

First the good news.

There’s no lack of public forums for mayoral candidates in this town. Voters, therefore, should know who — and what — they’re getting.

Neighborhood associations, from Carver City to Ybor City, host candidate conclaves on a seemingly daily basis. Chambers of commerce, the University of Tampa and various business and professional groups sponsor more such gatherings. Forums-R-Us. That should make for good democracy. Present yourself to the people, put it on the line and be accountable.

Now, the bad news.

To accommodate as many as six candidates, the response time to submitted queries is necessarily brief. Exhibit A: the recent luncheon sponsored by the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce at the Columbia Restaurant. It featured the four major candidates — Bob Buckhorn, Pam Iorio, Charlie Miranda and Frank Sanchez — plus arid activist Neil Cosentino and Don “Fit-Fun-Free-and-Functional” Ardell. With one minute for an opening, a closing and answers to three Ybor-related questions, it was a forum fit only for sound biting. The food was good; the food for thought much less so.

Consensus ruled. All candidates noted how valuable Ybor is as well as how vulnerable it is if the synergy with downtown and Channelside isn’t realized. Everyone wanted a better business mix in Ybor, and no one, presumably, wanted 7th Avenue turned into a teenaged vomitorium.

Not everyone, however, is equally adept at such faux forums. Charlie Miranda, for example.

“Plain Charlie” has lots of hands-on history around here. The chairman of City Council is also an infrastructure insider. He’s folksy, blunt, knowledgeable, relatively old school and relatively old. Arguably, he’s affected most by forum-lite. His three major, 40-something opponents are more media flexible.

With less than two months to go, these additional campaign trail snapshots:

*So far, Sanchez, who says he wants to be the city’s “Chief Vision Officer,” is the only candidate to incur any serious aspersions, even if typically indirect. Initially it was from both Miranda and Buckhorn over his failure to, in effect, pay his dues by not living here for more than 20 years. And putative help from influential friends of Dick Greco was characterized as dirty pool and a slap at Miranda, who had been close to Greco. They both had fun with his given “Francisco” name, implying that “Frank” was some politically expedient, mid-life reinvention.

Recently the thinly veiled criticism comes mostly from Buckhorn, who’s skewering Sanchez when he reminds audiences that “Vision without substance is an illusion” and that “Talk is cheap.” For good measure, there are periodic references to not needing “cue cards.” Buckhorn, with 16 years of City Hall-related experience, was an assistant to former Mayor Sandy Freedman before being elected to two City Council terms.

*Sanchez, Tampa-born and fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, is a professional negotiator and mediator who had never run for political office before. He seems to be adapting to the drive-by crucibles.

For openers, he works in his educational credentials and governmental experience without sounding snooty. If one must account for having been out of the local loop for two decades, it helps to reference Harvard, Bob Graham and the White House, as well as international contacts and business acumen. He’s also learned the value of bullet points when time is at a premium. His unique, beyond-the-bay background gives his “growing the economy” mantra a major measure of credibility and conviction. Notably on his game in this area.

*Street-smart Buckhorn is still the best debater. He’s been preparing himself for this job since he was a Freedman Administration aide. And he sounds it. His position papers are the standard for detail.

*Pam Iorio, the recently resigned supervisor of elections, hasn’t had to take an unpopular stand in 10 years. For many voters she is synonymous with good government and good character. Whoever criticizes her probably does it at his own peril. She is for excellence in everything — and can be as glib as the next guy.

*Don Ardell is not a serious candidate, but he’s a seriously funny one. A tedium buster with a nothing-to-lose, sometimes self-deprecating sense of humor. He typically follows Sanchez in alphabetical rotations. At an international business forum at UT, he acknowledged on several occasions that he was in total agreement with “everything that Frank Sanchez just said, so there’s no need for me to repeat it.” Brought the house down at a Plant High gathering by referencing the Gasparilla Parade as “A bunch of drunks in the streets, littering the place. What’s to be proud of?”

*Ardell has already won a “run-off.” It happened recently when the accomplished road runner and triathlete was working out at Coleman Middle School. When a P.E. class appeared, he asked the instructor if he wanted to motivate any of his students to “challenge the old guy.” A dozen or so took on the 64 year old — and were smoked at 220 yards.

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