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Chris Ingram brings the Tiger Bay Club back to relevance

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

At its best, Tiger Bay Club forums held throughout the state can provide a valuable public service as a place where the public can interact with lawmakers, political candidates, activists and journalists who are asked to participate each month.

Depending on the topic or the featured speaker, however, these same events can often devolve into dull, scripted events. That’s where the audience of Tiger Bay members get to to play their part in what we have of a democracy, raising questions that the public wants to know — questions that can put the newsmaker on the spot.

One such example was back in the summer of 2011, when then GOP Senate candidate Mike Haridopolos was grilled at a Tampa Tiger Bay event held at the club’s usual spot at Maestros’ restaurant inside the Straz Performing Arts Center. The former state Senate president was besieged by a number of hostile entreaties, and appeared shaken by the end of the event. A short time later, he announced he would not be running to oppose Bill Nelson in his bid for re-election in 2012.

Fairly or not, some people feel that’s when the Tampa Tiger Bay Club got the reputation for being not so hospitable to Republicans, leading some local members of the GOP to beg off when asked to take part in such forums. The club hosted Democratic attorney general candidate George Sheldon in 2014, but was shut out in wooing the state’s current AG, Tampa’s own Pam Bondi, to participate. (Rumor has it that after a rough appearance in 2010 at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club she has refused any and all such offers to appear again.)

Trying to grow its membership, the board last year asked if local political analyst and former Republican Party staffer Chris Ingram would like to take over the board, which he agreed to, though he said he wasn’t all that psyched at the time.

Ingram said that over the years he had attended some meetings, but wasn’t very impressed by the organization.

The thought that he could help persuade more Republicans to join in was a reason former Tampa Tiger Bay Club member Joe Citro said he voted for Chris.

“The perception is true,” Citro, a registered Republican who was unsuccessful in a  bid for City Council says. “Tiger Bay is leaning more towards the left,”  he says, but he believes Ingram is trying to play it down the middle.

Susan Smith, the leader of the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida, takes exception to that notion. She says that in fact she and several other Democrats were asked to join the Tampa Tiger Bay cCub back in 2010 because at that time the club was thought to be too heavily Republican.

“I’m not saying it’s the reality, but the perception is the reality that it was a left-leaning Democratic organization,” Ingram acknowledged last week. “I don’t particularly think that’s true, but the perception certainly is there.”

Ingram has been a major presence on the Tampa Bay political landscape for the last decade after moving down to the Bay area from Washington, D.C. He currently writes a column for the Tampa Tribune, appears as a political analyst for Bay News 9, and occasionally fills in as a guest talk show host on stations like 970 WFLA and 820 WWBA (and he hints that he may be doing something more regularly on radio in the future).

Since he took over late last year, he’s been building up membership, actively recruiting Republicans like state attorney Mark Ober, tax collector Doug Belden and County Commission Chair Sandy Murman to become members. But he’s worked to get Democrats like former state Rep. Betty Reed and County Commissioner Kevin Beckner to join as well, making for a more interesting dynamic at the local meetings.

Smith says Ingram is doing a “great job.”

“Our monthly attendance has nearly doubled from what it was a year ago,” she says. “Chris has improved our website, and with the help of our new executive director Gail Solivan, is improving our abilities to communicate with members and expand our profile in the community.”

Ingram has also brought in sponsorships, Smith says, that have allowed the club to subsidize the attendance of students from the University of Tampa, USF and HCC at their monthly luncheons.

And the site of the local meetings has now changed, from Maestros to the Ferguson Law Center. Ingram says that was no easy feat, moving from a site used by the club over the last decade.

“I felt like part of this revitalization effort of the club in terms of new members and better speakers that I’ve been encouraged to do, also included a change of venue to give a stronger message saying hey, something different, something new is going on at Tiger Bay,” he says. “And I have to tell you, you wouldn’t have believed the amount of controversy on the board that the notion of we’re going to leave Maestro’s created. It was unbelievable. But ultimately, we prevailed in that effort…’

Ingram has been in the news lately not just for his rehab efforts with Tiger Bay. A recent Facebook kerfuffle with old-time sparring partner Sam Rashid led to the Eastern Hillsborough County GOP power broker losing a U.S. senatorial appointment to the Florida Federal Judicial Nominating Commission. It happened after Ingram called out Rashid on Facebook for calling  three unnamed Hillsborough County Circuit Judges “dumbasses.”

Ingram says that he and Rashid share an “amicable relationship,” and talk from time to time, but can often have spirited discussions either via Facebook or through email exchanges.

It was on a recent Friday night that he says he saw on Rashid’s Facebook page a screen shot of a letter signed by Florida U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson about his appointment, followed by Rashid’s posting.

“I posted back to him and said, ‘Sam, what’s going on?’ I mean, calling some judges just some dumbasses, how appropriate is that? And how objective can you be when you come in with that kind of an attitude, and publicly stated as such, and we went back and forth for half an hour or so and the next morning I got up and looked at it and he had written a letter to Marco Rubio’s legal counsel saying that he was withdrawing or resigning, I’m not sure how he characterized it, removing himself from that position because of his bias.”

Ingram has always been a favorite with local media, undoubtedly in part because of his idiosyncratic manner. Though a lifelong Republican, nobody has been more critical at times of Republicans like Rubio, Charlie Crist and Rick Scott.

Citro says that’s why he and others thought he’d a be a great fit to lead the Tampa Tiger Bay Club.

“Chris is a very unique man. He’s a strong leader, and I like his style. He can ruffle feathers and once someone ruffles feathers you tend to shake cobwebs off and people start asking questions and I like that about Chris.”

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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