When I drove back into town last Friday, I was greeted at home with a copy of the St. Petersburg Times and a metro section story about influential trucker-builder Bing Kearney, who had seen one of his companies forced into bankruptcy court.
His corporate misfortune in this recession is probably the perfect place to start my last column as Creative Loafing's political editor. More details about that later.
But Kearney's companies, which depend on growth, growth, growth to stay alive, and his Chapter 11 action resonate for me. First, all of us here at Creative Loafing have lived under the precarious protection of the federal bankruptcy court for the past year, so I don't wish that on anybody's company. Second, Kearney was one of Tampa Bay's "Money Men," 10 rich power brokers I profiled in a 2006 cover story that detailed the tens of thousands of dollars they'd given to local politicians. The bankruptcy is a stark reminder of what is at stake for these pro-growth urban sprawlers: their very livelihoods.
So is it any wonder that local politics is so dominated by growth money and the politicians it has purchased?
As I close out my tenure as political edtior here, let's take an assessment of where Tampa Bay politics stands.
First, we are (I hope) nearing the recovery point of a horrible recession, one that hit Tampa Bay and Florida worse than most of the rest of the nation. It exposed our inadequate state economy and tax base and showed what happens when you rely on growth and new home sales to fuel your existence. But did our state and local politicians use the "breather" that the recession gave us on growth to re-write our land-use plans, refocus growth away from expensive sprawl and back into urban redevelopment? No. Did politicians use dropping land values and stalled commercial projects to snap up sensitive lands to save them from the bulldozer? Not much (Mayor Pam Iorio's ongoing attempt to buy and save the land at Georgetown Apartments in South Tampa being the most notable exception). In fact, Hillsborough County commissioners are looking at a cockamamie scheme to "save" a vast swath of the northeast corner of the county, called Cone Ranch, by selling to people who want to develop the pristine land. That's right, save land already owned by the public by selling it to private interests.
Second, we are at a point of transition in Tampa Bay politics. There are some important elections coming up, not the least of which was this week's primary for St. Petersburg mayor, and the Tampa mayor's office opens up in 2011. And yet the races seem dominated by politicians of the past, unexciting names and retreads. Where is the new generation of Tampa Bay politics? Is our bench that shallow?
For the roughly 20 years that I have been writing about or managing local politics, I don't think I have ever seen such a great opportunity for a new wave of thought and people -- one that is not being met fully.
But enough with the kvetching. There are rays of hope, wonderful people who care a lot and are fighting like hell for good ideas. People like St. Pete state Rep. Rick Kriseman, a voice of sanity in a GOP-goofball-dominated Florida Legislature. And Sen. Charlie Justice, who last year won our Best Local Politician in the Best of the Bay. And Tampa City Council members Mary Mulhern, Linda Saul-Sena and John Dingfelder. Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who has both the understanding and commitment to change the local economy for the better. Citizen bloggers such as Tommy Duncan at Sticks of Fire. And activists such as Jason Busto, the unofficial mayor of West Tampa, who has been fighting for connecting Tampa to Cuba; John Warren, whose vision for downtown St. Pete and the need to get everyone on the same page to consider all the aspects of a successful city is refreshing to hear; Mariella Smith, the Sierra Club member who has blown the whistle in blogs about many of the pro-sprawl efforts, including the movement to gut Hillsborough's Environmental Protection Commission; and my ardent PoHo blog contributor Kelly Cornelius, who is laser-like in her quest to go to every governmental meeting and mock those officials who are working against smart growth. Who else would have done the math and figured out that for the price of the lawyers and legal judgment against him we could have just purchased 9.1 hookers every day for a year for the disgraced Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White?
There are many more, too many to mention here, as well as old political friends (or past clients) who are also doing their parts, like Pinellas County Commissioner Neil Brickfield annoying the shit out of Pinellas bureaucrats by asking lots of nitpicking questions about the annual budget, or Ken Welch, who I would love to see as the mayor of St. Petersburg someday. If I left you out, I apologize. Or maybe I just don't think you are doing enough to transform Tampa Bay.
I don't think I did enough. CL's readers responded so strongly to my "Fix It Now" series that detailed 10 things we needed to change in this community, I wish I could have devoted the time to take my Powerpoint show about it around to every civic group in the Bay area, à la Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth.
But the truth is I'm not really leaving Tampa Bay or its politics. For those who don't follow CL online, I have accepted a one-year appointment as a visiting professor at the University of Florida, where I am teaching print and broadcast majors the art of investigative reporting. (And yes, I have already used the example of Kevin White's expensive suits.) I hope to do some political reporting from time to time, but for now, The Political Whore is turning off the red light. CL's politics contributors will still keep the fires burning, though; look for their writing on the Daily Loaf blog and in News & Views.
I still live here. I still care about what happens to my home. I still think Tampa Bay can have Florida's most exciting economy instead of its sleepiest, can have Florida's richest blend of heritage and hipness. That won't change.
As I packed my stuff from my desk, I took down a weird little artifact mailed to me years ago by somebody named Frank Goldstein. It is a news clipping of then-Congresswoman Katherine Harris announcing she would not run for the U.S. Senate, annotated with various insulting nicknames and sexual innuendo. As art, it was a hoot. Atop the picture was a Post-It note, hand lettered: "Pay Attention Here."
I kept it on my wall as a reminder to keep my eyes on those issues that really matter, those people who really make a difference. If you love Tampa Bay like I do, when things get discouraging or dire, in the year that I am focused on teaching, I hope you will take over the fight for me. Just remember to pay attention here.
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