Mayoral hopefuls debate at Tampa high school

He has been told he doesn’t have a shot, this self-proclaimed “prettiest candidate” for Tampa’s mayor.

A fitness buff, he is running on a platform based largely on creating a fitter candidate.

He has little money and has gotten little exposure.

But, as his fellow candidates found out, Don Ardell may not be easily beaten in this run to the mayor’s office.

In a debate held at Plant High School in Tampa Wednesday, that was moderated by USF professor Susan MacManus, Ardell stole the show. Eliciting laughs and cheers from the crowd of a few hundred, Ardell’s shoot-from-the-hip style stood in stark contrast to the polished political style of his opponents, businessman and former Washington insider Frank Sanchez and long-time local politicians Pam Iorio, Charlie Miranda and Bob Buckhorn. A sixth candidate, Neil Cosentino, did not participate in the debate.

The candidates faced a series of 10 questions taken from the audience. Ardell’s straightforward humor bit into his opponents early and often.

The candidates were asked a question about the pirate festival Gasparilla. The question came from an audience member who was concerned the annual event had become too expensive and too commercialized.

The other four candidates praised the festival, but were concerned about commercialization. Ardell, however, surprised the audience with his response.

“What’s there to be proud of (when there are) a bunch of drunks in the street?” Ardell said. “(What do we do) to get these people to stop dressing up as pirates?”

Later, he told the crowd that he has nothing against Gasparilla.

“I don’t personally go to events that I don’t enjoy,” Ardell said. “I don’t appreciate women exposing themselves. But I’m not going to ban it.”

On more serious issues, Ardell separated himself from the pack when a question was asked about the privatization of certain governmental services, such as trash collection and water.

While the other candidates handled the issue with kid gloves, not really committing either way, Ardell said, as a citizen candidate and not a politician, privatization is exactly what his campaign is about.

“I’m running for office because of my belief in privatization,” Ardell said. “I believe in privatizing in public office.”

The candidates were later faced with a question about property values in south Tampa. With rising property rates, some neighborhoods have seen mansions built directly alongside older residential housing.

Ardell drew the ire of at least one fellow candidate with his response.

“(I like) to watch the politicians squirm,” Ardell said of his fellow candidates. “This is not difficult. We have zoning ordinances … I like spectacular homes. I think they’re wonderful.”

Miranda, directly following Ardell’s comments, shot back his response.

“I don’t think any of us squirm,” Miranda said to Ardell. “And you’ve learned to talk both sides very quickly.”

Possibly the hottest question of the debate concerned Tampa’s reputation for being a leader in the adult entertainment industry. Iorio, during that discussion, made her strongest statement of the night.

Iorio said she was a proponent of safer communities. Her comments attacked a measure in which Miranda and Buckhorn, both city councilmen, were involved. The measure called for dancers to remain at least six feet from strip club patrons.

“Every time an officer is in the club looking with a measuring stick, (there is) one less out doing something important,” Iorio said.

Buckhorn answered with a biting response. A supporter of the measure, he said his daughter shouldn’t be exposed to X-rated businesses as he drives her around town.

“Not all of us have taken funds from the adult issue,” Buckhorn said to Iorio.

But, despite strong comments from both, it was again Ardell who stole the spotlight.

“There is something even bigger than security, and it’s called the Bill of Rights,” Ardell said. “You don’t have to patronize (an adult business) to tolerate it … let’s lighten up.”

Ardell also attacked a statement made by a fellow candidate about New York’s cleaned-up streets, which were credited to former mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

“By the way, Mayor Giuliani was not so popular before 9/11,” Ardell said. “He (trampled) a lot of rights in New York City. And he was the guy who wanted to close an art museum because his religion didn’t approve of one of the exhibits. Let’s not get carried away with Mayor Giuliani.”

Sanchez, who remained relatively anonymous during much of the debate, made a strong statement about improving slums. He said his business experience, especially in negotiating private sector investment, will help him improve all of Tampa.

“If any part of Tampa hurts, we all hurt,” Sanchez said. “We can’t do half the job.”

Arguably Buckhorn’s most convincing argument came concerning the growth of currently downtrodden neighborhoods in Tampa. He said he wants to revitalize all areas of the city.

“Downtown, (there are) currently 800 people (in residence),” Buckhorn said. “Four hundred are in jail.”

Miranda stuck by his platform of accountability. He had strong statements on his own ideas for improving struggling neighborhoods.

“I want to be the infrastructure man,” Miranda said. “(I want) a dollar value for a dollar spent.”

Iorio continued to hammer her platform of a safer Tampa. Many of her responses centered around this topic.

But impressive throughout was Ardell, who said he wants to change the philosophy of the people in Tampa. The reason for his success probably has much to do with the fact he has nothing to lose.

As he said, at least with him, “what you see is what you get.”