Iorio Taken Aback By “Modest”-Agenda Criticism

Conventional wisdom says Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio easily wins re-election on March 6. She doesn’t even need a campaign manager, per se. She’s, in effect, filling that position herself. But she does have a headquarters, multiple phone lines, coordinators and plenty of volunteer Iorions.

“Regardless of opposition,” says Iorio, “you run a campaign. You need a mechanism.”

In general, people like her; in particular, she has no serious competition – certainly nothing like 2003 when she entered the mayoral race late and still won handily against the formidable likes of Bob Buckhorn, Charlie Miranda and Frank Sanchez. Even the debut of early municipal voting works in her incumbent favor.

“CW” also says Iorio is fawned over by neighborhoods and frowned at by the business community. That’s what prompted the interest surge in former mayor Dick Greco. She’s also vision-challenged, goes the thesis, and she likes her agendas bread-and-butter basic and “modest,” thank you. But, still, she can’t be beat – not by this field. More viable, would-be candidates are waiting until Pamelot passes in 2011.

But one thing about conventional wisdom. Sometimes it’s neither conventional nor wise.

“The average person doesn’t think like this,” avers Iorio. “I’m out a lot, and the feedback I get from voters is positive. Generally, you get a sense of whether you’re doing a good job or not. I’ve addressed the needs of the city – from neighborhoods to downtown to financial stability.”

While no one actually thinks Iorio — absent a Debra LaFave moment — will lose, some believe she gets a bad rap on this “modest”-agenda-and-“vision” thing. Foremost among those who believe this: Iorio.

The terminally unflappable mayor does bristle a bit when it comes to any assessment — or media perception — that she is at her core little more than an upbeat, hands-on, risk-averse, pothole populist. That’s why the lady is a wonk — and not a big-project visionary.

As if these were zero-sum priorities.

“‘Modest agenda?’ That’s ridiculous,” contends Iorio. “No matter what you do, someone will dismiss it. It gets almost comical. There’s always spin – from those who preferred someone else or didn’t like the (Rafael) Vinoly (Tampa Museum of Art scenarios) situation.”

Or happen to be retired firefighters with pension axes to grind; or disgruntled developers with unanticipated water impact fees; or perplexed city employees with new bosses.

While Iorio doesn’t blame the media, she does note that the sword of journalistic “balance” is double edged. Of necessity, she points out, the media ferret out “unhappy people.” As in: “‘Another good day at city hall’ isn’t news.

“All communities have spin people,” reiterates Iorio. “Some people simply don’t want to acknowledge the progress that has been made.”

In her media e-mail that formally announced her re-election bid earlier this month, Iorio, 47, proudly cited city hall changes on her watch. They included “a new emphasis on issues that directly affect the quality of life for the citizens of Tampa” and “a new vitality in our downtown.”

The quality-of-life part of the equation translates to more than doubling the funding for street improvements, more aggressive code enforcement, a precipitous drop in the crime rate and a $60 million, five-year capital storm water program. Plus, the creation of additional Community Redevelopment Areas (CRAs) and Tax Increment Financing (TIF) vehicles, the establishment of a hurricane reserve fund and an upgrade in the city’s bond rating.

None of it is sexy. None of it the stuff of visionaries. It’s the eyes-glaze-over nature of infrastructure stewardship.

Ultimately easier on the eyes is what is transpiring downtown, asserts Iorio. No longer tolerated: a drive-by, office-building enclave. This is a vital part of her watch too, she emphasizes, as if to say: How “modest” is an extreme makeover of downtown?

In mantra-like manner, she can tell you that from Franklin Street to the Channel District, some 2,800 residential units are either complete or under construction – representing more than $850 million in private investment. There’s the design of the “transformative” Riverwalk, the re-design of Curtis Hixon Park and (finally) plans for a new museum that will feature the art of the pragmatic: the wherewithal to expand in stages. All incorporate unapologetic “pay-as-you-go” principles.

And do recall, the mayor implores, the recently opened Embassy Suites Hotel across from the convention center, the long-awaited (now underway) renovation of the Floridan Hotel, and the real estate vote of confidence symbolized by Novare Group of Atlanta’s multiple projects. And not to forget, adds Iorio, The (Tampa) Heights project that will transform a blighted area north of downtown into 48 acres of Tampa new urbanism. And, to be sure, Super Bowl XLIII, won on her watch, is coming to town in 2009.

Then there’s mass transit, which has been pretty much an oxymoronic concept around here.

Iorio’s a sans-a-beltway proponent. Ideally, downtown would cease being car-dependent. She’s more than willing, she declares, to roll out the bully pulpit, leverage political capital and go to the hardball mattresses for meaningful mass transit. She envisions a regional transportation system, she stresses, that would include some form of rail service that links major employment centers and counties.

“It will bring this whole region together,” she says. “In 20 years Hillsborough County will add a population the size of Atlanta (460,000). Dealing with that, without a doubt, is a priority.”

And, arguably, a vision.

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