When consultant Mary Repper retired from the partisan political wars a few years back, it surprised a lot of folks. She was well regarded and successful. She helped a lot of candidates, Democrat and Republican, male and female, black and white. Most of them won; a few were eye-opening upsets. But after more than 20 years of being equal parts Zig Ziglar, Dick Morris and pit bull, she called it a career. The defeats, however infrequent, had taken their toll.
“Losing is just unacceptable to me,” she said at the time, “and it just rips my heart out. When it gets that way, it’s time to move on.”
That was 2002. She was 59.
Fast forward to two weeks ago. There she was at the Valencia Gardens in front of an animated, expectant crowd of political true believers, well wishers and worker bees. They were awaiting the formal introduction of their candidate, Al Fox, who is running for Congress. Repper was there because she’s the head cheerleader — and campaign manager for Fox.
He is who she came out of retirement for. Someone whom conventional wisdom says can’t win. Can’t beat the well-financed, name recognition-blessed Kathy Castor for Jim Davis’ District 11 seat. But if anyone could, it would be – Senate Minority Leader Les Miller.
It’s that daunting a challenge.
Fox is a 61-year-old rookie candidate and long-time Washington fixture who has returned to his Tampa roots. He’s been around the issues, but his biggest claim to fame is that he founded the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation and has made dozens of trips to Cuba – including the one that brought along former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco. He’s amiable, candid, not politically glib and refreshing in a long-shot, nothing-to-lose kind of way.
And he knew that to have any kind of chance he had to have somebody like Repper. Or better yet, Repper.
“I had never met her,” recalls Fox. “But I knew I needed somebody like that. So I called her. She said, ‘No. Period. End of story.’ But two weeks later I tried again. Meanwhile, she had been talking to folks. So she says ‘No’ again, but that it would be ok to call her from time to time. That told me we had a shot. We all (spouses included) had dinner. She was in.”
And Repper knew what she was in for.
“I know the odds are considered long, and he’s the dark horse and all of that,” concedes Repper. “But here’s what brought me back. I had been doing this stuff for years, and yet had never met anyone who matched Al’s sense of, well, just doing the right thing. He has the courage to take strong stands, and he’s genuine enough to lack political posturing. The more I got to know him, the more I felt I had a responsibility to work for him. He deserved to be represented by somebody who can help.”
And while Fox is best known for opposing the Cuban embargo and for normalizing relations with Havana, he’s hardly a one-trick pony, Repper maintains.
“Beyond a shadow of a doubt, he has more knowledge than everyone in this race put together,” avers Repper. “And I’m familiar with them all.”
But what about his Washington insider and lobbyist background?
“Bring it on,” says Repper. “I think it gives him more credibility. He knows how things work. And every single person in the race was at one time a lobbyist.”
Among those with early input on the Fox campaign was Patrick Manteiga, the editor and publisher of the Ybor City trilingual “La Gaceta.” He encouraged Fox to keep after Repper.
“I told him, ‘She’s exactly what you need. It puts you on the map. It makes people wonder why. People need a reason to believe.’
“I’ll also say this. Al Fox is an unusual character,” underscores Manteiga. “Most politicians don’t want to aim at the hard stuff while running. He’s even met with immigrant protestors.
“Politics normally doesn’t give us a lot of surprises,” acknowledges Manteiga, “but anything can happen.”
To date, the candidate campaigns have mainly made news through fund-raising figures. Castor leads everyone with more than $670,000. Miller has brought in $320,000, while Fox has raised $206,000.
Some of Fox’s take has gone to those “Who is Al Fox?” billboards now popping up around town.
To some, he might be Don Quixote.
But make no mistake, that’s not Sancho Panza at his side.