Somewhat lost in the tumult over the infighting within the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee this week is the fact that for the second time in less than two years, a Democrat has been elected to the Tampa City Council in a run-off election after finishing a distant second in the initial election.
Luis Viera’s win by 63 votes in the District 7 race came four weeks after he finished 2,469 votes behind Jim Davison in the Nov.8 general election.
“We had a great ground game that we’re really proud of,” Viera said on Thursday. “I think that the the closer that people looked at the issues involved in this election, the more they were able to make an informed choice.”
The initial odds for the run-off didn’t seem to favor Viera, the 38-year-old Hunters Green-based attorney running for office for the first time. Not only had Davison taken the most votes in the general, but a poll taken two weeks before the run-off continued to show him with a steady lead. He also received two endorsements from two of the original six candidates (Avis Harrison and Cyril Spiro), while the two other Democrats in the race, Gene Siudut and Orlando Gudes, declined to get behind Viera’s candidacy.
Even though the race was considered “nonpartisan,” it was anything but that. The Hillsborough County Republican party literally tried to shower some support for Davison, the only registered Republican in the race, giving him a $1,000 contribution that ultimately was rejected when it ran afoul of the Tampa City Charter. Meanwhile, Viera was backed by Democrats like Kathy Castor, former District 7 representative Lisa Montelione, and ultimately Bob Buckhorn.
And while Republicans are somewhat of an endangered species at City Hall, District 7 has been their lone sanctuary for a number of years now, with Shawn Harrison and Joseph Caetano holding down the seat for a 12-year run from 1999-2011.
But the two debates in the last week of the race could have been the deciding X factor.
The vast majority of voters in Tuesday night’s election voted by mail, most in advance of the negative fallout that Davison received for saying in both debates that he would not take the issue of New Tampa seceding from the rest of Tampa off the table.
While it may not have been the defining moment of the race, Viera believes it was a break for his campaign.
“When I talk to people in whether its Forest Hills or New Tampa, or anywhere in North Tampa, they rejected the idea of using that, even as leverage,” Viera says. “So that’s something as soon as I heard that I knew that it wasn’t going to be well taken, because it wasn’t well taken by me,I don’t think that’s a productive process that you negotiate for North Tampa. To me that’s a non-starter and I believe that the voters agreed with me.”
Davison thinks that Viera was skillful in “twisting the secession thing,” and said he actually won the majority of votes in New Tampa.
While Viera says he won’t use secession as a negotiating point, he was certainly shared Davison’s sentiments on the trail that District 7 needed a fighter to gets its fair share from the rest of the city government.
“Not in an adversarial way, but in a way to work together to stress the great unique benefits of North Tampa,” he says, “whether it’s the University area, which includes USF, Moffitt, Shriners, etc. Whether it’s the wonderful neighborhoods of New Tampa, whether it’s Forest Hills historic neighborhood. Just to stress to people the benefits of neighborhoods, the people, the industries, the potential to the city and I believe that by doing that…we can get the respect that we deserve in North Tampa.”
In April of 2015, Jackie Toledo received 1,370 more votes than Guido Maniscalco in a three-person race for the Tampa City Council District 6 race general election and nearly won the race outright with 46 percent of the vote. But after the third place finisher, Tommy Castellano backed Maniscalco in the run-off, he ended up beating Toledo by 149 votes, in another case of a Democrat beating a Republican in run-off.
“In Guido’s case he was 17 points down, so I think that the role that we played was bigger,” says Hillsborough County DEC Chair Ione Townsend, who was serving as vice chair of the party back then. “I did organize some events, but for Luis, he had the funding and some pretty key endorsements, and the mayor came in at the end to help him.”
Davison admits that Viera had more money and a bigger machine working for him. “I was taking on the whole Democratic machine. You had Jim Davis, Bob Buckhorn and Tom Scott all making multiple robocalls,” he says.”I had robocalls for three days, but I was using a citizen in New Tampa. Not the mayor or a former congressman.”
Viera did raise more than four times as much campaign cash as Davison did. In fact, Davison raised the least money of the original six candidates, showing that in a small local election, money is not always a deciding factor, though ultimately it was here.
“It takes a lot of money to get that kind of message and explain it to people,” he says about his comments that a new firehouse was needed immediately. “Money I didn’t have.”
“If you examine the metrics of the Tampa Bay Fire Dept., it doesn’t call for another firehouse, ” Davison adds. “It may in the future, but certainly there’s not a need for allocating funds in the next budget or two.”
Davison says he may run against Viera again in 2019, but says that all of the other candidates in the race are formidable in their own right. And he says the issues he was talking about during the race are still there.
“They’re going to have to give Luis something,” he says about what Viera can get for the district when he runs for re-election.
Hillsborough County GOP Chair Deb Tamargo was unavailable for comment, but Jonny Torres, who is challenging her for party chair later this month, didn’t hold back.
“You can’t look at a race like the one in District 7 where we only lost by 65 votes and ask yourself, “what could we have done differently?” If the margin were larger it would be a very different conversation, but we have not been able to gain any ground in local elections for years,” he tells SPB in an email. “While we have been able to hold on to most of our local offices, the changing demographics in the county are not trending in our favor. This only reinforces the need for us to ramp up and expand our visibility, voter registration and engagement in the community to be better prepared for these types of opportunities.”