Dingfelder Weathering Perfect Political Storm

No one, seemingly, saw it coming. A serious challenger, that is.

Certainly not City Councilman John Dingfelder. And certainly not a race with intimations and accusations of sign sleuths, push polls and a “hatchet job.”

The District 4 incumbent has, quite arguably, been a sensible enough, if sometimes quirky, successor to Linda Saul-Sena, the patron saint of all things aesthetic, in an area known for affluent neighborhoods, a commitment to historic preservation and a fear of scale-skewed development. A mediator by training, Dingfelder has seemed well suited for the formidable task of balancing the vested interests of the private sector with government’s charge to manage growth intelligently. He’s known as a neighborhood guy.

The Tampa native is a partner in the Scarritt Dingfelder Law Group, but knows a side of life where white collars aren’t part of the dress code. His career incarnations have included stints as an assistant public defender, algebra teacher at Robinson High School and science teacher at Booker T. Washington Middle Magnet. He’s also done volunteer work for Habitat for Humanity that didn’t include photo ops. He’s handy enough to have built his own backyard deck.

“I think it put me closer to the average citizen,” says Dingfelder of the public school experience. “You’re teaching everybody’s kid, including the military’s at Robinson. The public defender’s office? It gets you grounded in a hurry. You see it all.”

Saul-Sena has seen enough to be impressed in Dingfelder’s four years on city council.

“John’s very smart, he really listens and he’s very good at finding creative solutions,” assesses Saul-Sena, who is running unopposed (citywide) from District 3. “He really pays attention to the people and the issues in his area. He not only attends civic functions, but he also creates public forums. He has the guts to initiate that.”

Indeed, Dingfelder founded South Tampa’s Neighborhood Empowerment, an issues-driven group that holds quarterly sit-downs with senior city officials.

By reputation, Dingfelder also has the gumption to go with his gut – even if it isn’t popular. He took heat when he took on the police union, voted for a stormwater fee and supported the expansion of a Tampa General Hospital garage over the protestations of Davis Islands residents – and old friends.

“TGH is the regional medical center,” explains Dingfelder. “And like it or not, it’s on Davis Islands. We have to support it. We have to look beyond the parochial. I always vote my conscience.”

From the perspective of former Mayor Dick Greco, Dingfelder is the member paradigm for a body often asked to play city council Solomon to competing, often well-organized, well-heeled interests.

“He will go overboard sometimes to get input and consensus on an item,” points out Greco. “He’s meticulous and asks a lot of questions. He’s been a mediator; it’s part of his makeup. And that’s an important trait, especially in a position where you have to weigh the arguments, say, of developers and neighborhoods.”

To Dingfelder, it’s an extension of a personal philosophy. “As a society, we don’t have to slay each other in court,” he says. “Conflict resolution is healthy for the soul.”

Dingfelder is on record for “leading the (mini tax-revolt) charge,” much to the peeved disappointment of Mayor Pam Iorio, for millage reduction last year. He also findsmerit in more millage rollbacks — as long as assessments keep ascending. He’s earned a reputation for being honest and principled, even if gaffe prone. That’s a combination that, on balance, should get you re-elected. Maybe easily.

Perfect storm candidate

Unless a perfect political storm hits. In this case, the one personified by Julie Brown. The apotheosis of “uh-oh.”

It wasn’t that long ago (2004-06) that Brown, 31, was an assistant city attorney who occasionally conducted business in front of city council. The closest Dingfelder, 50, and Brown came to a contretemps was when Dingfelder, who is known as a methodical inquisitor, called Brown on her use of “we” — as in representing her city hall client. Dingfelder reminded Brown that city council was also a client. It made for a little rhetorical head-butting — and a better-than-average CTTV moment.

Brown was a good friend of Dingfelder’s law partner, Tom Scarritt, and there were periodic opportunities for Dingfelder-Brown chitchat. They were invariably amiable, and any career talk, recalls Dingfelder, dealt with Brown’s interest in the FBI, not public office.

“Sure, I was surprised,” says Dingfelder. “She never mentioned politics.” Up-and-coming was now out-and-running.

Brown looks like the response to a Republican Central Casting call. A fiscally conservative blonde who is as articulate as she is attractive. An eclectic resume ranging from the arts to real estate. That Rockwellian portrait with requisite husband, infant and pet. A family pedigree, even if it’s her in-laws’, that is steeped in Tampa aristocracy. A pragmatic, if not prescient, educational parlay that combined a law diploma with an undergraduate degree in public relations.

Part of Dingfelder’s mantra is that he “asks the tough questions.” Brown, who’s hardly sound-bite challenged, replies that she will “give the tough answers.” Especially on matters of “smart growth” and budget scrutiny.

Is she Dingfelder’s worst re-election nightmare? “I often hear that,” Brown says.

Brown signs sprouted around the tonier parts of South Tampa like campaign kudzu. She lined up endorsements from the firefighters’ and police unions as well as Republican state representative Trey Traviesa, the Greater Tampa Association of Realtors and the Tampa Bay Builders Association. (Her husband’s company is a member.) Full-page ads dotted local dailies.

Her inner circle featured Republican political consultants April Schiff and Ann Voss and homeowner association activist Gene Wells. Obviously, someone noticed that — non-partisan election notwithstanding — there’s plenty of registered red in South Tampa. And lots of green.

Money matters

Brown’s coffers, abetted by builders and the expansive, extended Kuhn Volkswagen family, overflowed early. In fact, $20,000 of it was collected from car dealer Jason Kuhn’s relatives and associates, some of whom reportedly live in the voting district. Most gave the legal maximum of $500. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has been reviewing the contributions for possible campaign-finance sleight of hand.

Brown hit six figures by the end of January. Dingfelder, who raised $40,000 back in 2003 against the formidable likes of Clay Phillips and the aforementioned Wells, was forced to match the effort and up the ante.

“As long as I’m the incumbent, I have to keep up,” explains Dingfelder. “The appearance it gives to the press and pundits is that somehow you’re vulnerable and weak. It’s unfortunate. It’s a flaw in the system.

“I was in favor of calling a cease fire a couple of weeks ago,” adds Dingfelder. “By then it was at $80,000. Beyond that, it was obscene.”

The unexpected and ever-ratcheting pressure to fund-raise – as well as slovenly e-mail account oversight – led to an embarrassing Dingfelder campaign blunder. A constituent reply on an ordinance change was followed up by a request for money. Ouch. There’s never a convenient time for damage control – especially in a truncated, two-month race.

To be sure, Dingfelder doesn’t have a reputation as Kid Pro Quo, and it wasn’t exactly Yacht BasinGate, but sloppy and stupid is an unholy alliance. Dingfelder acknowledged as much and apologized.

“I didn’t see that as an indication that he was unethical,” says Scott Paine, a former city councilman who teaches government and ethics at the University of Tampa. “It was a gaffe. These kinds of things get traction when a person doesn’t acknowledge the mistake – and do it quickly – and there’s some latent tendency to believe the worst. I don’t think that’s the case here.”

The Dingfelder campaign weathered any ethical
insinuations because most folks know the difference between dumb and devious. The race has finally slogged into its homestretch phase.

Key endorsements

The off-year turnout won’t be anything to make a democracy proud, but low numbers generally favor incumbents. District 4 voters, however, do turn out in relatively larger numbers than elsewhere in the city. There’s a core of constituents for whom the recent endorsements of Dingfelder by the Tampa Tribune, the St. Petersburg Times (which actually “recommends”) and even the tri-lingual weekly La Gaceta will matter. Possibly a difference-maker in a tight race too dominated by fund-raising and campaign carping.

Guess here is that Dingfelder, with his reputation as a staunch neighborhood advocate in a district with a wary eye for developers, keeps his cool the rest of the way and ultimately keeps his seat on city council. Close but no shoot-out. Incumbency remains a trump card so long as a track record tops campaign promises and wish-list bullet points.

Regardless, Julie Brown, vice president and legal counsel for The Talon Group, is obviously a player destined for public office.

We’ll give the next-to-last word to former Mayor Greco, who never lost a race around here. He thinks it will be “very close” but won’t venture a prediction. He does offer this:

“John Dingfelder is the kind of guy who, if he thinks you’re wrong will tell you,” says Greco. “And he’s told me. It’s not personal. It’s honest. And he does what he thinks is right.”

We’ll wax idealistic and give the last word to Abraham Lincoln:

“With public trust everything is possible, and without it, nothing is possible.”

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